Omer: Breaking Through

This week in the annual cycle of Torah portions, we study Behar/Bechukotai, the last two portions in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. For some of my thoughts about Behar, click Three on Behar. You can also read my post on Bechukotai.

This week in the Kabbalistic counting of the omer, the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot, we are counting through seven permutations of the sefirah Yesod (“foundation”). In next week’s post I’ll write about the closing prayer in the omer service, with its amazing attitude toward the sefirot (the plural of sefirah). Today, I’ll just repeat that the word  sefirah comes from the same root as sofeir = counting, and the ten sefirot in Kabbalah are categories of God’s creative power, or forces ruling the universe and the human soul. The seven weeks of the omer count are linked with the seven lower sefirot, the divine forces we can experience directly.

But before the closing prayer of the traditional omer service, we read or sing a mysterious poem, Ana Bekho-ach.



In my last few posts about counting the omer, I said that Ana Bekho-ach was written by Rabbi Nechunya ben HaKanah, a Kabbalist who lived in the first century C.E. But as I did more research on the poem, I learned that it was merely attributed to Rabbi Nechunya, just as The  Zohar, a major multi-volume work of Kabbalah, was attributed to 2nd-century Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai but actually written by 13th-century Rabbi Moshe de Leon. Until modern times, Kabbalists seemed to feel that texts carried more authority if they were attributed to respected rabbis from Talmudic times and before.

Alas, we still do not know who wrote the poem Ana Bekho-ach, though scholars speculate it was written as liturgy in Palestine in the Middle Ages. Neither do we know whether the anonymous author intended any of the Kabbalistic meanings that have been attached to the poem. Ana Bekho-ach might have been a psalm of supplication, written by a poet who simply enjoyed the challenge of writing in the form of seven lines, each line containing exactly six Hebrew words (making a total of 42 words). But in Lurianic Kabbalah, the number 42 is, if possible, even more exciting than the number 7.

Kabbalah took a new turn in the 16th centery through the disciples of Isaac (Yitzchak ben Shlomo) Luria, who taught in Sfat. Lurianic Kabbalah focuses on repairing the breach between God and creation, raising the divine sparks in our world to join the ultimate divine light. The first prayer in the traditional omer service sets the intention of using this service, both its prayers and its counting, to unify God Itself with the shekhinah, the divine presence in our world. (For more on this, see my post Counting 49.) The closing prayer of the omer  service also frames counting the omer in terms of the repair and unification of the divine. How can we help with this transformation, besides praying for it? Luria taught that one path toward unification is meditation on various permutations of the names of God.

The Talmud mentions a secret 42-letter name of God (Kiddushin 71a). So how could a Kabbalist resist reading mystical meanings into the poem Ana Bekho-ach, which has not only seven lines that might reflect the seven lower sefirot, but also a total of 42 words, which might correspond to the 42-letter name of God? The idea that a secret 42-letter name of God is expressed by the initial letters of the 42 words of Ana Bekho-ach is so irresistable, that after we read or sing this poem in the omer service, we whisper the same sentence that we whisper after the Shema prayer, which names God. An English translation of this whispered sentence is: Blessed is the name of the glory of Its kingdom forever and ever.

Most English translations of Ana Bekho-ach go beyond the literal level to bring out a poetic meaning that expresses the insights of the translator. Poetry is notoriously difficult to translate! Here is my attempt at the most literal translation I can manage using English vocabulary and grammar, with no effort to use six words per line or to capture an insight. (I’ll get to the insight later.)

1. Please, with the great strength of Your right [hand], may You break tzerurah.

     tzerurah = what is bound, tied up (from the same root as words for bundle, narrow straits, and distress).

2. Accept the singing-out of Your people; protect us, purify us, Nora (Awesome One).

3. Please, Gibor (Strong Champion), guard those who seek union with You, like the pupil of an eye.

4. Bless them, purify them, be compassionate to them; continually gemol then with Your tzedakah.

     gemol = wean, reward, ripen. The Hebrew Bible views weaning as a celebration of the child’s new maturity. Perhaps giving a child solid food was seen as a reward.

     tzedakah = righteousness,  justice that goes beyond the letter of the law.

5. Chasin (Mighty One) , with Your abundant goodness, guide Your congregation.

6. Yachid (Only One) who is gei-eh, turn Your face toward Your people, those who remember Your holiness.

     gei-eh = proud, haughty, aware of high status

7. Accept our call for help and listen to our outcry, Yodei-a Ta-alumot (Knower of Secrets).

One peculiarity of this poem is that it uses none of the usual names for God. Instead, it refers to several aspects of the divine: Awesome One, Strong Champion, Mighty One, Only One, and Knower of Secrets.

Whatever mystical meaning it may or may not hold, the poem Ana Beko-ach is certainly a supplication for God to pay attention to us and help us. What kind of help are we pleading for? It depends on the interpretation. Here is mine:

—I think that in line #1, we implore God to break whatever constricts us, so we can go free. Sometimes our constrictions, either external or internal, are too strong for us to break through by our own willpower, so we pray for help. This verse addresses God only as “You”; we will take help from any aspect of God, we are so desperate.

—In line #2, we address God as “Awesome One”. We want to be noticed, transformed, and protected, not by a parental figure, but by  the incomprehensible wonder of whatever it is we call God. Or maybe we simply long to be touched by the intangible and ineffable, even if it seems logically impossible.

—In line #3, we beg God to be our bodyguard, and maybe our soul-guard. We pray that God will be our “Champion” and treat us “like the pupil of an eye”. The pupil is an especially precious spot, which anyone would take great care to protect; it is the window of the eye, where light and sight come in. If we are talking about God’s (metaphorical) pupil, we want God to cherish “seeing” us. If we are talking about the pupil of the one who seeks union with God, we long to be enlightened and “see” the divine.

—In line #4, we pray first for gifts that require the grace of God: blessing, and a soul-cleansing purification. Knowing our own faults, we pray for God to view us with compassion. Then the prayer moves up a notch. Although we depend on God for life itself, we do not have to remain infants in every respect. We pray for God to wean us, through thoughtful justice, so we will grow up and find our own sustenance in the world God created. As in line #1, God is addressed simply as “You”, so we are praying for gifts of blessing and maturity from any aspect of God—including God’s creation.

—In line #5, we address God as “Mighty One”, and ask God to use the divine power gently, for goodness and guidance. When we pray fervently to an unknowable god, it is natural to become afraid of the overwhelming power we imagine. Being fallible humans, we long for the things that are good from our perspective, and for guidance in a life full of unknowns.

—In line #6, we beg God to turn toward us, because God seems haughty and aloof. I know I find it hard to maintain a feeling of intimacy with God for more than a moment, since God does not speak to me in audible words, or touch me with tangible hands. God does seem aloof to me, even when I am remembering the divine. The verse also echoes the Hebrew Bible, where God turns Its face toward the people It favors. Do we address God as “Only One” because we only need God’s favor? Or because there is only God in all the universe, and we want to repair the apparent breach between us and the divine? Or because there are no other gods, and we pathetically limited humans are God’s best option for communicating with any being?

—In line #7, we again pray for God to pay attention to us and help us. This time we address God as “Knower of Secrets”, using a word for “secrets” that comes from the same root as the word olam = world, universe, eternity. As the “Knower of Secrets”, God knows all possible worlds, while we only know this world, the world our senses report to us. Yet some sixth sense, perhaps reaching us from the “right brain”, intimates that there are other worlds we do not know. I think it is this sixth sense that leads us to grope for a notion of God. Without it, we would have no religious impulse, no need to pray, no way to ask something beyond ourselves to help us.

The poem Ana Bekoa-ach does not need to contain a mystical 42-letter name of God. It is already all about our longing for union with God. It already implores God to listen to us, and answer us. It already begs God to intervene in our lives, in order to improve our souls, in order to free us so that we can come closer to God.

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