Pesach is behind us, and Shavuot is right in front of us. Now, we find ourselves in the intermediate period that we call Sefirat Ha’Omer—counting the Omer. It is a 49-day cleansing period in which we prepare ourselves by refining different elements of our character, with a specific focus on one trait a day. This system ensures that by the time of Shavuot, we are no longer enslaved people (with a slave mentality) but are fully-freed people, who resemble nothing of our previous identities and are ready to receive the Torah at Sinai.
Dr. Bob, one of the cofounders of Alcoholics Anonymous, is said to have claimed that the 12 Steps of recovery can be summed up in three simple steps:
1. Trust God —Steps 1–3
2. Clean House—Steps 4–11
3. Help Others—Step 12
There is a lot of wisdom in this program of experience, strength, and hope, and it synchronizes very nicely with the Jewish calendar.
Let’s start with Steps 1–3: the “trust God” steps.
1. We admitted we were powerless over “my challenge” (Ed. note: I changed the word “alcohol” to “my challenge,” to make this applicable for everyone)—that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
These three steps are represented in the story of Passover. To leave our personal Egypts, it wasn’t simply enough to say, “I’ve had enough.” It wasn’t even enough to have hit rock bottom and realize that we need outside help. In order to become free, we had to literally turn over all our power to God. How does one reach an understanding of what it means to turn over all their will and life to God?
Think of it as a Chinese finger trap, or quicksand. The more you fight it, the more entrenched you become in it. It is only when you let go altogether that you can experience emancipation from whatever is holding you back. This was the story of the Jewish people when they left Egypt. They were down to nothing, and there was nothing of their earlier identity left. They were completely unrecognizable from their earlier selves. There is a recovery slogan, “When you are down to nothing, God is up to something.”
Then, and only then, can you start the journey to freedom. This is expressed perfectly in the flat flavorlessness of the matzah: total deflation of self, with zero ability for ego (“Edging God Out”) to let the bread of affliction rise. When you have totally let go of feeling personally powerful and fully realized the unmanageability of your life (Step 1), but (per Step 2) have come to believe in God’s potential to restore sanity, you are in a position to then turn your whole self over to God (Step 3). And then you can begin to recover. When you have become a matzah, then you can leave Egypt.
Now, we move on to the “Clean House” steps.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
If you look at these steps, you see one common thread: they are all steps about self-improvement. It is a slow and steady process of cleansing ourselves from the inside out, taking a deep look at our personal character flaws, exploring how we got to where we are, and intentionally healing and making right all that we did wrong. We take inventory and continue taking inventory of our insides until we get to the point where we have fixed that which is bad or unresolved inside.
The period that begins on the second evening of Passover is called Sefirat Ha’Omer. Literally, that means the counting of the Omer. Etymologically, that same word, sefirah, counting, can also mean to shine or polish.
In fact, is that not what we are doing in steps 4–11 and during Sefirat Ha’Omer? Are we not exploring, analyzing, and correcting any character flaws that we may have? This process is essential. It is a critical part of the program of healing. Only when we have worked through these issues are we capable of exponential or incomparable growth, rather than merely comparable growth.
Think of a seed that is planted in the ground. It actually has to decompose and lose its former identity to develop into a sapling that will spawn brand new fruits of its own. The old expression goes, “Anyone can count the seeds in an apple. Only God can count the apples in a seed.”
Ordinary personal repair, reflection, and cleansing/polishing leads to ordinary and commensurate healing and progress. Extraordinary inventory, reflection, and repair leads to extraordinary growth. In fact, it leads to an altogether new you.
There is a great story told in the recovery rooms. A man who has simply had it with his addiction turns to God and says, “God, I am done! I want to be sober.”
A voice booms out from heaven, “Lucky you, my son, sobriety is on sale today. How much do you have in your pocket?”
The fellow looks in his pocket and says, “I have $20.”
God responds, “OK: sobriety costs $20 today.”
“But God, if I give you my $20, how will I fill up my car with gas?” the man counters.
“Oh, you have a car? OK: sobriety costs $20 and a car today,” answers God.
“But if I give you my car, how will I go to work?”
“Oh, you have a job? OK: sobriety costs $20, a car, and your job.”
“But God, if I don’t go to my job, I won’t be able to feed my family!?”
“Oh, you have a family. OK: sobriety costs $20, a car, your job, and your family.”
At this point, the man wises up and shuts his mouth.
“Do you have anything else?” God asks. The man mumbles inaudibly but indicates that he has nothing.
“OK,” says God, “now that you have nothing left, I am giving you back everything that you previously had. Here is your $20, your car, your job, and your family. Except now it is my $20, car, job, and family. I am giving it to you to use as I see fit. Use the God-given gifts I have given you, but use them now in a way that I would approve of.”
The man gets the message. In order to have incomparable growth, to become something new, you have to first give up everything you had and were. Then, and only then, can you have a new God-version of you.
This is Sefirat Ha’Omer.
Step 12 is the final step of the 12-step program: the “help others” part.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs
The promise of serenity and a spiritual awakening is a gift that one receives after doing the work. It is not meant to be kept selfishly; but rather, shared with others in the spirit of “experience, strength, and hope.”
This concept of sharing one’s spiritual awakening with others brings us to the celebration of Shavuot. Is there any greater spiritual awakening than the absolute and complete revelation of God Himself, as experienced by every single Jew at Sinai? From the greatest scholars to the lowliest of maidservants, everyone beheld the greatest revelation of the King of all kings.
The Giving of the Torah at Sinai can represent the promise of serenity and sobriety, but only if it is preceded by a deep introspection of our greatest character defects. We must search our souls and cleanse ourselves of these defects to fully experience the awakening promised by the Torah.
Once we have done this work, we must then share our experiences with others and practice these principles in all areas of our lives. By doing so, we can help others achieve their own spiritual awakening and continue to grow in our own journey toward serenity and sobriety.
This article is based on the teachings of Rabbi Shais Taub—as I understood them.
Rabbi Mendel Schusterman
Thanks to my brother, Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman, of Chabad Peabody, Mass. for sharing the above thought