Religion and Refinement


Much has been written bemoaning the hypocrisies we witness daily of so-called pious people behaving in very impious ways. The Talmud perhaps captured it best in describing the proverbial thief who prays to G-d “before he goes out to steal” (Berachot 63a).

None of us are immune to inconsistencies and just plain old duplicity in our own behaviors – the contradictions between our actions and our expectations of others; the standards we claim to uphold and our lapses. And we always notice and criticize the flaws of others more than we do our own.

“A man sees all flaws except his own,” says the Mishne.

But when this dissonance appears in religious circles the disconcertment is amplified many times over. The contrast of a person being so devout on one hand, while being so coarse on another, is terribly unnerving.

To help us counter our human inconsistencies and especially religious dissonance, the Torah offers us powerful tools. One of them is the key mitzvah of counting the Omer – a 49-day period, beginning the second night of Passover, that focuses on refining our personalities.

Why does the counting commence at the outset of Passover? Technically, the reason for this is  because, as Leviticus states, the counting begins on the day that the Omer offering (a measure of barley) was brought in the Temple, which was the second day of Passover. But the question only carries over to the verse: Why not bring the offering after Passover and then begin the 49-day character refinement process after Passover? The energy of freedom emanates during Passover, so why the need to add in these days another element: character refinement?

When the Jewish people left Egypt you would think that after 210 years of harsh oppression, they should now be allowed to relax a bit before taking on their next challenge. Yet we see that virtually the day after they left Egypt they began to count the days, which included their hard work of introspection and character refinement in preparation for Sinai!

This timing teaches us a profound and vital lesson: Even when you are celebrating freedom, never take your blessings for granted. Every transcendent experience can just as quickly dissipate. As soon as you experience a revelation, an inspiration, an epiphany, channel it into personal growth and refinement. It is very easy to fall into the trap of relying on the crutch of religion when experiencing something special. The most important thing to always remember – even, or especially, when you are on a high – is that you must integrate the freedom into your personal life. And that requires hard work.

It’s one thing to be lifted on the Divine “wings of eagles” and be carried by G-d out of bondage. It’s quite another matter maintaining that freedom in our everyday routines.

Religion today – and humanity as a whole – is suffering from deep spiritual dissonance: Being religious is not necessarily equated with being refined. You would think that the more pious an individual, the more sensitive he or she would be, the more compassionate, the more giving and sublime. That is not very often the case. In most cases the more religious the person the less spiritual and vice versa. People who are deeply committed to religious rituals and dress in religious garb can at the same time be quite obnoxious.

Nachmanides writes (Leviticus 19:1) that in religious life there is a possibility of a “naval b’reshut haTorah,” a despicable person [who behaves so] with “permission” of the Torah. This means someone who uses the letter of the law in a disgusting way, to justify his inappropriate behavior. We therefore have the specific commandment “sanctify yourselves for I, your G-d, am holy.” We need to limit and refine even that which is permissible according to the Torah. Strict adherence to the laws is not sufficient; it needs to be saturated with sanctity and sensitivity. They must be performed not just by habit or mechanically, but in a way that permeates our beings and personalities and transforms our behavioral mechanisms.

Isaiah put it bluntly when he said in the name of G-d:

I cannot bear iniquity along with solemn assembly (Isaiah 1:12). These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are removed from me. Their reverence for me consists of rules learned by rote from men (29:13).

Religion today is often associated with dogma, anger, condescension, judgmentalism, insensitivity and even arrogance – anything but deeper empathy and warmth. How is that possible? How can a person devoted to G-d not be the most refined person on Earth?

The answer lies in the profound dissonance that is possible in our dark universe, where the Divine reality is shrouded in layers upon layers of coarse materialism.

So we are given the mitzvah of counting the Omer and refining our characters just at the high point as we are leaving Egypt – to tell us that the religious high must be drawn into our personal behaviors, that a Divine experience is not complete and will not hold unless it refines our attitudes, sensitizes our senses and simply makes us better, more giving, more loving human beings.

This is also the meaning of the mitzvah of counting the Omer, And you shall count for yourselves (U’sefartem lochem): U’sefartem (from the word sapir, the lustrous sapphire stone) also means you shall shine. And the additional word lochem (for yourselves) – which seems superfluous – emphasizes that this consists not merely of counting, but of internal work. We need to internalize and integrate the experience, by refining our personalities to the point that we shine for ourselves – we emanate a glow and an aura from within that only comes from the refined beauty of a transformed psyche.

Freedom – even the great Egyptian Exodus led by G-d – is not complete until we integrate the experience into our personal lives. Passover gave us the Divine gift of freedom, taking us out of all our constraints and fears (mitzrayim). That is step one. But that alone doesn’t mean that we are free from within. True freedom is possible only when we free ourselves from our own emotional subjectivity and trappings, through the thorough process of introspection and character growth in the 49 days of the Omer.

U’sefartem lochem: Each day we count – reflect, refine and illuminate – another aspect of our emotional personality.

Then and only then do we become ready to absorb the 50th day – the Sinai experience, an even greater transcendent dimension, when we receive the Divine blueprint and power to fuse matter and spirit. We don’t count the 50th day, but we cannot reach it unless we first count and refine our 49 (7×7) personality features.

What a fascinating way to look at the post-holiday period. Usually one would think that after a long and beautiful holiday we return to our regular routines and move on. Omer tells us that as Passover ends we don’t just rush to buy the fastest pizza pie – and reenter our quotidian lives. We now have the great responsibility and the glorious opportunity to demonstrate our ability to shine – to shine from within – and illuminate our environment with distinction and dignity.


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14 years ago

i fully agree with your sentiments. they are not popular, for indeed they include rabbis who after all are only human.
Are you a renegade Simon ? Most religious people, but not friends of mine, think of me as one.They figure their time in a yeshiva and lack suits or whatever externals mark them as pious, makes them so. As your article says, this is not necessarily so, and more often that not their religion is dissonant with their actions. Just like the rest of us lay people. I have great friends. Religion is not their. Its more of a priority for me most importantly because it accents refinement. That can never be wrong.

Adele Mischel MSW
14 years ago

thank you Rabbi, for these beautiful and inspiring words.

Patricia Grossman
14 years ago

Great article.

Tamara Kalir
14 years ago

This is a particularly insightful and inspiring piece, giving greater meaning and life to the omer-counting process.

Shoshana Gertz
14 years ago

I now come to understand the importance of building up your character with total Bitul can only help you grow and even then you are always having to keep the right frame of mind. Hard work

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