"Terrible, thanks for asking"

On Sunday, a group of Kavana parents and kids gathered for our monthly "Prep & Practice" event to learn about Lag Ba'Omer. We talked about the seven-week Omer period as a time of "pervasive sadness," and about Lag Ba'Omer -- the 33rd day of counting -- as a day of joy that serves as a release and counterpoint in its midst.

On Sunday, a group of Kavana parents and kids gathered for our monthly "Prep & Practice" event to learn about Lag Ba'Omer. We talked about the seven-week Omer period as a time of "pervasive sadness," and about Lag Ba'Omer -- the 33rd day of counting -- as a day of joy that serves as a release and counterpoint in its midst.

As Maxine Alloway and I met to plan this Prep & Practice event, we struggled to come up with accurate, kid-friendly language to characterize the Omer period's emotional valence. The Omer's sadness is a kind of low-grade mourning... not nearly as acute as the grieving we do around the death of a loved one, nor as sharp as the pain we experience on Tisha B'Av (when we mourn the destruction of the Temple) or Yom HaShoah (when we remember the Holocaust). The traditions associated mostly center around what we don't do during this time... no weddings, no haircuts, etc. There is also no single historical antecedent for the Omer: instead, there are traditions that hang the semi-mourning of the Omer period on the plague that afflicted Rabbi Akiva's students, link it to the period of Roman persecution during the same rabbinic era, or -- going much further back in history -- connect it to the dissatisfaction, ingratitude, and grumbling of the Israelites during their wandering in the wilderness before reaching Mount Sinai.

During the Prep & Practice event, all of the adults who participated in the parent discussion could connect personally to the concept of a long-term state of pervasive blah-ness; after all, we have all spent the past 14 months now living through a global pandemic that has affected nearly every aspect of our lives. As if to affirm this parallel, a New York Times article last week named "languishing" -- a sense of stagnation or emptiness -- as "the dominant emotion of 2021" (click here to read the piece). This matches what I've been feeling recently and also what I'm hearing from others in the Kavana community right now... that although there is plenty to celebrate as we move through spring (vaccines! schools reopening! beautiful weather!), many of us feel as though we're operating in a fog, or at least in a less-than-optimal state. Of course, there's a wide range of individual experiences and no one correct way to move through pandemic time; still, one friend of mine is constantly cautioning everyone around her to "remember, no one is ok" right now.

The actual commandment to count the Omer is found -- believe it or not -- in this week's Torah portion, Parashat Emor. Leviticus 23:15 reads: "And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete." The Hebrew phrase for that last part, "sheva shabbatot temimot tihyena" -- "seven weeks; complete shall they be" -- might make you think that literally, the Torah is instructing us not to skimp in our counting or skip a day. But the midrash of Vayikra Rabbah pivots to read "temimot" as meaning "complete" or "full" in a spiritual sense. I like that suggestion, and this year, want to take the idea of the midrash even a step further. I wonder what it would mean to live the Omer period this year with a full emotional range, encompassing everything from the pervasive sadness and languishing to the break-through moments of joy and celebration. This would certainly make for an emotionally "complete" set of weeks!

These ideas -- about the pervasive sadness of the Omer, and the fog of pandemic time -- were already swirling around in my head this week, and then I happened to be in my car to catch a bit of the TED Radio Hour on NPR -- a segment so intriguing that I went back later to listen to the full 52-minute show entitled "How Can We Face Life's Rough Edges?" (which I highly recommend listening to or reading in full!). The part that first caught my attention was Susan David, a South African psychologist, criticizing "toxic positivity" and advocating instead for a full embrace of all emotions, including the ones we've been taught to identify as bad or negative. By letting ourselves really feel these harder emotions, we can use them as data to learn about ourselves, developing a skill that she labels "emotional agility." (Incidentally, the title of this Kavana newsletter is borrowed from the title of a podcast by the same name, created by Nora McInerny, the main guest on this TED Radio Hour episode.)

Hopefully, the Kavana community is one place where people know it's okay to experience a full range of emotions as we move through life. Just before the pandemic, in the fall of 2019, Kavana completed a Strategic Plan refresh. The new purpose statement we adopted then reads: "We are an innovative Jewish cooperative that empowers each community member to create a meaningful Jewish life, develop positive identity, and receive support on their journey." The last phrase - the one I've bolded here - was added quite purposefully to acknowledge that we will all have times along the way, as we journey through life, when we will need support. Over the past 14 months, the Covid-19 pandemic has only underscored how very true this is.

The seven weeks of the Omer remind us that sometimes it's okay not to be okay. If this isn't a message you need to hear today, consider yourself lucky that you're in such a positive head-space. But if it resonates -- because the word "languishing" rings true for you right now, or because you are feeling even more acute pain than that -- please do reach out and let me know. If it's true, then "terrible, thanks for asking" is always an okay answer, and I am here to listen.

I wish for all of us an Omer period that is complete ("temimot"), such that we can embrace the pervasive sadness and challenge of this moment, and also accept the relief and joy that Lag Ba'Omer brings us this week.

Sending virtual hugs - we're in this together,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum