By Rabbi Dan Lewin
We are deep in the period of the Jewish calendar known as Sefirat HaOmer, where every day (beginning at nightfall) there is a separate mitzvah to count. On the surface, it’s a countdown to the day of receiving the Torah — Shavuot. On a deeper level, we relive that process when we count the Omer and by refining ourselves, one step at a time. In this vein, the Hebrew word for count shares a common root with “to shine.” Reliving this preparation involves a guided personal refinement known as tikkun hamiddot wherein we polish our character.
Jewish tradition teaches that the “personality” of every person consists of seven general soul traits — kindness, discipline, compassion, competitiveness, gratitude, and so forth — corresponding to the seven weeks. Furthermore, each of these seven contains a component of all the others. So, in effect, there are 49 specific traits corresponding to the 49 days of the Omer. Every day offers a unique opportunity to work on a specific aspect of our character.
Repairing our inner and outer world
The concept of “tikkun” (e.g. tikkun olam) is a pervading theme, especially in Jewish ethical and esoteric texts. The basis of this doctrine is the idea that our abode, the physical world as we know it, is incomplete: a mixture of good and evil, truths and falsehoods, a raw arena in need of our participation. That effort involves sifting through the data with wisdom and, where appropriate, rectifying a deficit through action, often in the form of giving to enhance the lives of others.
As it pertains to the external environment, each soul has a portion of his or her world to uplift and illuminate. The inner world, our natural constitution and character, is likewise in need of refinement. And it is this process of inner growth that most distinguishes us from other creatures and defines our specific mission. Another term for this tikkun work is birrur.
On a more mystical level, birrur means dealing with physical objects to extract the spiritual element from the shell that hides it, thereby separating good from bad and freeing the divine spark. An example of such encounters, the most primal and common activity, is how we relate to food. Elevation here means pausing, thinking about the source, making a bracha (blessing before and after eating), not overindulging, etc. The general principle concerns the ability to detect the sublime energy within something physical, rather than only seeing the superficial form that offers immediate fulfilment.
Passing the tests
There is another type of birrur process, an inner rectification, that is much harder. We commonly refer to it as a “test.” At some point, everyone faces these crucial moments that inevitably spur growth or regret. In contrast to the usual extrication process, our effort and spiritual success in this context does not come through active interaction with external objects. Rather, the rectification lies in choosing not to engage with (or disengaging from) something that confronts us — or that we know is harmful yet struggle to resist.
These kinds of challenges — not succumbing to flowing fear or doubt, not entering unnecessary conflict, refraining from a desired experience — take more effort and often involve temporary pain. Furthermore, the divine purpose is initially more mysterious, the godly spark more concealed. At the same time, our sacred texts relate that the general purpose behind every test in life is to arouse the best of the person’s resources. And whenever we can push away the trappings and focus on the inner layer, the outer layer no longer serves as a barrier, the bulk of the test disappears — and we arrive on the other side victorious and stronger.
To meet this kind of challenge, we must set aside our natural inclinations and employ a deeper force inside the soul that transcends hesitation and calculations. In this sense, the main refinement takes place within us rather than within an external entity. For some people, the choice and sacrifice are more intense. That’s why the difficulty, or specific struggles that someone faces, is often a good indication that succeeding in that area is not just a “side-gig,” but a big part of their general mission.
The character trait of this week is netzach (victory), the first of the three functional powers that help to actualize innate emotions. Netzach is the strong inner drive to conquer and achieve, the force that propels you to overcome any obstacle — within or externally — that stands in the way of reaching an important goal. Even though this competitive power appears relatively low down in the soul structure (more external, closer to action), it stems from and awakens the most sublime levels inside us. May we see the victories that we seek happen, already this week!
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.