I have always had a problem with the Omer. Doing the mitzvah of counting the Omer was of course pretty easy. Remembering to start the second evening of Passover and remembering to stop the day before Shavous took a little concentration but somehow I always managed. No, for me the nagging problem was always why was I doing this in the first place, other than the fact it was a biblical (according to the Rambam) commandment. Of course I understood that in some way our counting echoes the bringing and waving of the first barley crop in the Temple the second day of Passover. But we didn’t do that 49 times. Admittedly there is the Midrash Rabba and Midrash Tanhuma that relates that the Jews were told in Egypt that they would receive the Torah 50 days after the Exodus, and therefore passionately counted down the days to Matan Torah. But why did God make that a commandment once we already had the Torah? And I surely didn’t need to count 49 days to figure out when Shavous arrived: God already commanded us to keep a calendar.
It would seem that the rabbis shared my puzzlement and so in the Zohar the kabbalists started to link our counting with 49 permutations of the sefirah, lending a mystical and esoteric aspect to the mundane act of counting. Conveniently, the seven lower sefirot can be associated with the seven weeks between Passover and Shavous, and each day of the week also is associated with a specific sefirah. Combine the two and you have a complex esoteric system. One reason given for this system was the need to relive the ascent through 49 “gates” of impurity of the Egyptian bondage to the purity of revelation at Sinai. Now this system certainly added meaning to a simple count but, not being a kabbalist, its personal application is elusive.
Nowadays we think of ourselves as distant from the merit of receiving the Torah, so the notion of day-by-day self-improvement between Passover and Shavous has become paramount. A number of ethical tracts have responded to this (Amazon lists at least 10 from every conceivable point of view) including Chabad’s Rabbi Simon Jacobson; The Spiritual Guide to Counting the Omer. Not surprisingly contemporary Jewish artists have begun exploring this subject, including Jacqueline Nicholls (reviewed here September 2012). For the last three years she has been doing a drawing a day for each day of that year’s Omer cycle. In 2011 she was inspired by an exhibition seen at MOMA and performed “a daily ritual of walking, finding the lost, discarded, remnants lying the street, bringing them back to my studio and drawing them – each one tagged ‘I am still alive.’” Last year she did drawings “Gather the Broken,” each broken object drawn in conjunction with Amichai Lau Lavie’s commentary. Inspired by this work, Chassidic Pop artist Yitzchok Moully has been producing one abstract painting a day for this year’s Sefiras haOmer. The results have been intriguing and impressive.
Moully is a Chabad rabbi in New Jersey who has been exhibiting his Pop Art inspired canvases since 2007. While the Abstract Omer images, each 12” x 12” acrylic on canvas, are his first fully abstract series, his earlier works of Jewish themed images feature similar bright colors and heavily symbolic approaches to subjects. Moully is deeply at home with the volatile mix of kabbalah, personal introspection and abstract painting. These works have been featured on the Huffington Post’s “live Omer counting blog” and are a significant example of the spread of Judaism’s esoteric explorations.
The underlying theme of his Omer Map is that by becoming conscious of the sefirot of each day and concentrating on its two qualities of the Divine, one can apply such a meditation to one’s personal growth, daily becoming more complete as a human being and refining ourselves in preparation to receiving yet again the Torah at Shavous. As I write this, the Omer Map is not yet finished, being a work in progress; but once this review is published it should be viewable in its entirety at www.moullyart.com.