The counting of the Omer, which spans the forty-nine days from Passover to Shavuot, stems from the biblical commandment to set aside one sheaf of barley on each of forty-nine days between the two spring festivals, and then to offer the barley as a sacrifice on Shavuot. After the destruction of the Temple, the command became simply to count the days sequentially: Today is one day of the Omer, today is two days of the Omer… today is one week and one day, that is eight days of the Omer, and so forth.
Over time the Omer became a period of mourning because of tragedies that occurred during that time, including the death of many of the talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva’s students. The Omer also represents the link between Passover and Shavuot—the wandering in the wilderness between freedom and revelation. The meaning of the Omer has changed, but the mystery of it is still fascinating. My own interest in the Omer began when I learned about it in college—why simply count numbers as a way to serve God? This Omer calendar of forty-nine biblical women is one way in which I have begun to answer that question.
Why associate particular women with days of the Omer? Jewish mystics imagined God as having multiple faces or attributes called sefirot, including chesed (love or expansiveness), gevurah (strength, severity, or judgment), tiferet (beauty, balance or compassion), and so forth. The mythic characters of the Bible represent these attributes—for example, Abraham represents chesed, while Rachel represents malchut (majesty, and the presence of the indwelling feminine face of God known as the Shekhinah).
Some Jews who studied the kabbalistic system, particularly Jews interested in musar or the refinement of moral character, saw the counting of the Omer as a way to meditate on seven of these sefirot and include them in one’s own life.
Each of the weeks of the Omer represents one of these seven attributes. More particularly, each day within a week represents a combination of that week’s attribute with another one. For example, the first week of the Omer represents chesed. The first day is chesed shebechesed (love within love), while the second day is gevurah shebechesed (strength within love) and the third is tiferet shebechesed (compassion within love) and so forth. The eighth day begins the second week, the week of gevurah, and the first day of that week is chesed shebegevurah, love within strength. The cycle continues onward through the weeks until the last week, which represents malchut—the forty-third day of the Omer is chesed shebemalchut, the forty-fourth is gevurah shebemalchut, and the final forty-ninth day is malchut shebemalchut.
One way to refine in oneself the qualities of the sefirot is to meditate on an individual who has those qualities. The traditional kabbalistic system assigns male biblical characters to the sefirot, but not many female characters. Yet we are all made in the image of God, male and female. One modern understanding of spirituality is that each of us embodies the Divine in a unique way. Through understanding that God appears in many different faces, we can move beyond the idea that God is only one thing—only a father, only a king, only male—and come to understand that God moves through our world in multiple ways.
This calendar offers one biblical woman for each of the forty-nine days of the omer. It is meant both to teach about the women of the Bible and to honor the Shekhinah in every woman. My prayer is that this calendar will help women recognize God in themselves and help men recognize the feminine in their lives.
The Blessing over Counting the Omer:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ עַל סְפִירַת הָעֹמֶר
Baruch ata adonai, eloheinu melekh ha’olam, asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al sefirat ha’omer.
בְּרוּכָה אַתְּ יָהּ אֱלֹהֵינוּ רוּחַ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בִּמְצַוְּתָהּ וְצִוָּנוּ עַל סְפִירַת הָעֹמֶר
Beruchah at yah, eloheinu ruach haolam, asher kidshatnu bemitzvoteha vetzivatnu al sefirat ha’omer.
Blessed are You, God, Ruler/Spirit of the Universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us to count the Omer.
Week 1: Chesed/Love
1. Chesed she'beChesed
Love within Love
During the Exodus, the Shekhinah, the Divine presence, hovers above Israel in pillars of cloud and fire. Later, in the wilderness, the Shekhinah gives Israel manna to eat and water to drink, and appears on Mount Sinai to give them Torah. Throughout history the Shekhinah is Israel’s defender and nurturer, hovering over them when they pray and accompanying them when they go into exile. She appears in the renewal of the new moon, in the study of Torah, in the peace of the Sabbath. The Shekhinah is the essence of pure love and generosity, and it is proper to begin and end the counting of the Omer with her.
2. Gevurah she'beChesed
Strength within Love
Miriam (Exodus 2, 15:20-21, Num. 12, 20:1-13)
Miriam watches over her brother Moses on the shores of the Sea of Reeds, and convinces an Egyptian princess to save her brother. Legend says that Miriam is a midwife to the Hebrews, lovingly coaxing each baby’s first breath. She defies Pharaoh in order to save innocent infants. As she crosses the sea to freedom, she shows her bravery by raising her voice in song even while the sea is crashing down. According to a midrash, a well of water follows Miriam in the desert so that all may drink from it, for Miriam is a giver of life and strength.
Miriam’s chesed is tempered by gevurah: judgment and limitation. She criticizes Moses for not honoring her leadership of the people, and God punishes her with leprosy. She spends seven days and nights outside the camp, until she is healed and readmitted. Years later, Miriam dies in the wilderness, and her well disappears, but the mystics tell us that in every generation it returns to her people to heal them. When we consider Miriam, we know that to love well we must love with courage and determination. This is the meaning of gevurah shebechesed.
3. Tiferet she'beChesed
Compassion within Love
The Attendant to Naaman’s Wife (II Kings 5)
Some characters in the Bible pass so fleetingly that we almost miss them, like this young servant girl. In the book of Kings, an Israelite girl is captured as a slave and made to serve the wife of an Aramean commander. The enemy commander, like Miriam, is afflicted with leprosy. The Israelite girl, who is given no name, knows of a prophet, Elisha, who can perform miracles. She says to her mistress: “I wish Master could come before the prophet in Samaria and be healed!” She shows compassion for a man who has enslaved her and made war on her people.
The commander, Naaman, takes the little girl seriously and goes to the prophet Elisha, who orders him to bathe in the river. At first, Naaman refuses, but eventually he does what Elisha suggests and is cured. One can hope that Naaman shows his gratitude by freeing his slave, whose great love of human beings leads her to compassion. We feel the tiferet shebechesed of Naaman’s servant when we use our deep wellsprings of love to speak with compassion.
4. Netzach she'beChesed
Endurance within Love
Yocheved (Exodus 2)
Moses’ mother, Yocheved, loves her newborn son so much that she hides him from Pharaoh for three months. When she can no longer hide him, she weaves a basket and sets the baby boy afloat in the Nile. Yocheved’s love is strengthened by netzach—the faith that she can overcome any obstacle.
Her plan works. An Egyptian princess hands Yocheved her baby and tells her to nurse the child until it is older, when it will be brought to the palace. Imagine the astonishment and triumph of that moment! This is netzach shebechesed—love’s power to create extraordinary possibilities. Yocheved’s love created and nurtured what the prophet Micah calls “the three leaders of Israel”—Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. We engage in Yocheved’s netzach shebechesed when we believe in the power of our love.
5. Hod she'beChesed
Glory within Love
The Mother in Solomon’s Trial
Two women, prostitutes, bring a case before King Solomon. One woman tells him: “This woman and I live in the same house, and I gave birth to a child while she was in the house…This woman also gave birth to a child…During the night this woman lay on her child and it died. She got up in the middle of the night and took my son from my side while I was sleeping, and laid him in her bosom, and she laid her dead son in my bosom. When I arose in the morning to nurse my son, there he was, dead, but when I examined him in the morning light, it was not the son that I had borne.” The other woman denies the story, saying that the living child is hers. Solomon proclaims that his judgment is that both the dead child and the living one shall be divided with half of each child given to each mother. One woman—it’s not clear who—cries, “Give her the live child, and do not kill it!” The other woman callously insists, “The child shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it.” Solomon declares that the live child shall be given to the woman who was willing to give it up, “for she is its mother.”
Hod, glory, is sometimes explained as “yielding.” The mother in this story shows chesed toward her child because she is willing to yield it so that it may live. We act in her spirit of hod shebechesed when we act in the true best interest of those we love, even when it is most difficult.
6. Yesod she'beChesed
Connection within Love
Serach bat Asher
Serach is mentioned only twice in the Bible as the daughter of Jacob’s son Asher. Yet many legends were told about her. The most prominent of these was that she was granted eternal life because of her kindness to her grandfather Jacob. When the brothers of Joseph learned that Joseph was alive, they were afraid the news would kill their aging father. They asked the wise Serach to tell Jacob. Serach took a harp and sang the news to Jacob in rhyme while he was praying. Jacob exclaimed: “May the mouth that told me these words never taste death!” And so Serach, because of her chesed, lived forever.
It was Serach who confirmed for the Israelites that Moses was their redeemer, by remembering the words of promise and redemption that her father had taught her generations before. And it was Serach who, when it came time for the Exodus, showed Moses where to find Joseph’s bones, for the Israelites had promised to carry those bones out of Egypt when they were redeemed. There is a legend that in the time of the Talmud, Serach poked her head in the window of a study hall and told the Talmudic rabbis that the walls of the Sea looked like clear mirrors in which Israel saw all their generations reflected. Serach’s yesod shebechesed shows us how to connect one generation to another, keeping links of hope and promise alive.
7. Malchut she'beChesed
Majesty within Love
The Shunnamite (II Kings 4:8-37)
The Shunammite, a woman of the town of Shunem, is a benefactor of the prophet Elisha. She suggests to her husband that they build Elisha a chamber on their roof so that he has somewhere to stay. Elisha is grateful to her and asks her how he can help her, but her regal reply is: “I live among my own people.” She represents malkhut shebechesed—she does lovingkindness out of a sense of abundance and majesty.
Elisha knows that the Shunnamite has no child, and he prays for her to become pregnant. The child is born, but one day he is out in the field with his father and he develops sunstroke. He runs back to his mother, becomes ill, and dies on her lap. The Shunnamite runs to Elisha and bows before him, yet she does not plead for her child. She only says: “Did I not say to you: Don’t delude me?” Elisha goes to the home of the Shunammite and lies face down upon the child “until it revives. Without a word, the Shunammite bows, takes up her child, and departs.
The Shunamite's chesed is always full of malkhut: she never asks anything for herself, and her gratitude is dignified and calm. We take in the Shunamite's chesed shebemalkhut when we give and receive love gracefully.
8. Chesed she'begevurah
Love within Strength
Eve (Chava) (Genesis 2-4)
Eve is a new creature, dwelling in a perfect garden full of fruits of all kind, but she and her male partner have been limited in one way: they are forbidden to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. When Eve disobeys God and eats the forbidden fruit, she and Adam are punished with mortality and exile. Yet the fruit Eve picks also gives her wisdom and self-knowledge. All the humans that ever come to exist are born because of Eve’s decision to disobey God. Out of the gevurah, the judgment, that God decrees comes the chesed, the ongoing expansion of the generations that descend from Adam and Eve.
Eve’s life continues to hold limitations. She has to work hard for her living and suffers pain in childbirth. Her second-born son is murdered by her first-born son. Yet she does not give up the potential for love. She goes on to have another child, and she names him Seth, meaning foundation or gift. She is able to feel love and gratitude in spite of what she has suffered. Chesed shebegevurah is the knowledge that our lives are limited, finite vessels, but they are still full of love.
9. Gevurah she'beGevurah
Strength within Strength
Vashti is the queen of Persia. During a celebration, she and her husband throw separate feasts; he for the men, she for the women. The king’s feast becomes drunk and rowdy, and culminates in the king ordering Vashti to come and dance before him and his guests. One legend says that he wants her to dance wearing only her royal crown! Vashti refuses the king’s request, saying that she will not come to his feast to dance.
As a result, Vashti is deposed, and the stage is set for a Jewish girl named Esther to become queen and save her people. Vashti disappears from the story, whether because she is executed, exiled, or simply engulfed by the walls of the harem. The king then legislates that all women obey their husbands, afraid of the power of a wife who disagrees with her spouse. But Vashti’s “No” cannot simply disappear, for Vashti demonstrates the true meaning of gevurah—strength, justice, and the willingness to impose limits. She is gevurah’s essence—strength within strength, the inner will that allows us to say “no” to something that hurts or degrades.
10. Tiferet she'beGevurah
Compassion within Strength
Deborah (Devorah) (Judges 4-5)
Deborah is the only woman judge to be mentioned in the book of Judges. She sits under her palm tree and dispenses judgment to the tribes of Israel. Deborah appoints Barak general and commands him to prepare for battle against the enemy general Sisera. When he hedges, saying that he will not go to war unless Deborah goes with him, her answer is severe: “I will go with you, but there will be no glory (tiferet) for you in the path you are walking, for God will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” The glory will not be Barak’s—it will belong to Deborah, and to her counterpart Yael, a nomad woman who kills Sisera with a tent peg.
When Deborah sings her song of triumph over Sisera, she tells the story of the mother of Sisera, who waits behind her window for her son to come home.
Deborah embodies tiferet shebegevurah—compassion and balance even in the midst of judgment. We are most like her when we show strength but also empathy, allowing ourselves to see others’ point of view in addition to our own.
11. Netzach she'beGevurah
Endurance within Strength
Dinah (Genesis 30:21; 34)
Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah, is named “judgment.” Dinah is born into a world of limitation, of gevurah, simply because she is a girl. When Dinah grows up, the severity of her world becomes even more apparent. She is raped by a local prince, and her brothers slaughter an entire town to avenge her rape. One ancient midrash even claims that Dinah is forced to give up the child she bears as a result of the rape (see Asnat, day 19).
The Bible does not give Dinah a voice to tell of her experience. Yet Dinah’s spirit has somehow survived. Though Jacob gives Dinah no blessing and Moses gives her descendants no tribe, Jewish women can acknowledge one another as Dinah’s lost tribe. We ourselves can give Dinah a voice. We can imagine that Dinah found the persevering strength, the netzach shebegevurah, to go past her victimhood and become truly free. We are most like Dinah when we find a voice to speak of our tragedies, and transcend them.
12. Hod she'beGevurah
Glory within Strength
Yemima, Ketziah, and Keren-happuch, Job’s daughters (Book of Job 42:14–15)
Job is afflicted with troubles, including the loss of his seven sons and three daughters. He cries out to God, demanding to know the reason for his suffering. Finally, God answers, telling Job that God’s knowledge is too great for him to understand. Yet because of Job’s questioning, God rewards him with riches and health, as well as seven new sons and three new daughters called Yemima (Bright Day), Ketziah (Cassia Tree), and Keren-happuch (Horn of Eyeshadow). Unlike other daughters in the Bible, who have no inheritance if they have brothers, Yemima, Ketziah, and Keren-happuch receive land from their father equally with their brothers.
While they cannot replace Job’s children who died, Job’s daughters are a sign that new life is possible. The land they receive from their father is a sign of their ability to pursue their own destinies. This day of the Omer is Yom haShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, and Yemima, Ketziah, and Keren-happuch bring new hope to this day of mourning. We most embody the hod shebegevurah, the beauty within harshness, of Yemima, Ketziah, and Keren-happuch, when we are able to begin again after tragedy.
13. Yesod she'beGevurah
Connectivity Within Strength
She’ilah/Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11)
A rash and foolish judge of Israel, Jephthah, eager to win a battle against his enemies, promises that he will sacrifice to God the first creature that comes from his doorway to greet him when he arrives home after the battle. But the one who greets him at his doorway is his daughter, dancing and playing the timbrel to celebrate his victory. “You have become my troubler!” Jephthah wails at her, failing to acknowledge that it is he, her father, who has become her troubler.
Jephthah does sacrifice his daughter. Yet before he does so, she extracts a promise from him that she may go to the hills for three months to mourn with her friends. Even after her sacrifice, her friends continue to gather for four days in the year to sing songs in memory of her. The rabbis of the Talmud call Jephthah’s daughter She’ilah (questioner) and depict her as a brilliant woman who makes many arguments as to why she should be saved, all to no avail. Yet she is able to reach out to women in her life who love her, friends who understand the pain she feels. She’ilah represents yesod shebegevurah—she connects even in spite of harsh judgment. She creates relationships that surpass the limitations of her own life. We can remember She’ilah in our own lives when we establish families and friendships that remain strong even in hard times.
14. Malchut she'beGevurah
Majesty within Strength
Leah/Jacob’s Wife (Genesis 29–32)
Leah is the elder of two daughters of the shepherd Laban. Her younger sister Rachel is more beautiful than she—Rachel is lovely of form and appearance, while Leah has soft, weak eyes. The young shepherd Jacob falls in love with Rachel and serves seven years as payment for her hand. But on their wedding night, Laban tricks Jacob and substitutes Leah as the bride. Jacob is outraged and demands Rachel as well, but the deed is done. Leah remains Jacob’s wife.
Though Leah is unloved, she is not without resources. She is fertile and bears many children. As she bears children she names them and expresses her feelings through the names. In some names Leah expresses her desire for love. For example, when her first son Reuven is born, she says: “The Lord has seen my affliction; now my husband will love me.” Yet as Leah grows older, she finds contentment and pride in her own life. When her concubines’ son Asher is born, she says: “Women will call me happy.” Leah becomes, in the words of a traditional midrash, “a master of praise,” who finds goodness in her life and does good for others. In the Zohar, Leah represents the “upper mother,” Binah, the divine womb from which life and understanding flow.
In spite of the painful reality of living with a jealous sister and a man who does not love her, Leah finds the dignity of gratitude and independence. We demonstrate Leah’s malkhut shebegevurah, her majesty of strength, when we learn to live not only for those we want to love us, but for the goodness and godliness within ourselves.
Week 3: Tiferet—Compassion, Balance, Beauty, Truth
15. Chesed she'beTiferet
Love within Compassion
Shifrah and Puah
Shifrah and Puah are two hardworking midwives who help Hebrew slaves deliver babies in the land of Egypt. Pharaoh commands them to kill every Hebrew baby boy they deliver, while letting the girls live. Shifrah and Puah show compassion to the Hebrew mothers and their children, and they do not kill the male babies. Because of the compassion they show, God rewards them. The book of Exodus says: “God built them houses.” This may mean they bore many children. Or, one modern interpretation of this verse is that God made schools of midwifery for them so that they could pass on their heroic values!
Some traditional legends say that Shifrah and Puah are Yocheved and Miriam, the mother and sister of Moses. Other sources, both ancient and modern, imagine Shifrah and Puah as Egyptian women who believe in righteousness and who act to preserve the lives of others because it is the right thing to do. They are truly exemplars of chesed shebetiferet, and we are like them when they do acts of love born from compassion. The day of chesed shebetiferet is also Rosh Chodesh, the new moon. The new moon is a symbol of rebirth—appropriate to two midwives who help to birth the Hebrew slaves into a free people.
16. Gevurah she'beTiferet
Strength within Compassion
Idit/Lot's wife (Genesis 19)
Abraham's nephew, Lot, lives with his wife in the city of Sodom. They have four daughters—two are married and living with their husbands, and two still live at home. Lot has chosen Sodom as a place to live because it is rich and fertile, but Sodom is known for its evil ways. God decides to destroy Sodom, and sends two angels to save Lot and his family. A mob gathers around Lot's house, threatening to sexually attack Lot's visitors. Lot offers his two virgin daughters to the mob as a substitute. The angels save the girls, and demand that Lot and his family leave the city immediately without looking back. As Lot, his wife, and his two remaining daughters leave Sodom, Lot's wife looks back toward the burning city and is turned into a pillar of salt.
Why does Lot's wife turn to salt? One ancient interpretation suggests she looked back in order to see if her married daughters were following her. Her looking back was not an act of disobedience but of compassion. Rabbi Cynthia A. Culpepper in The Women's Torah Commentary adds that in the Bible, a pillar is often a memorial. By turning back, Lot's wife makes herself a memorial pillar to her two daughters who have died, and a witness of the past to her living daughters. The midrashic name given to Lot's wife is Idit, which means “witness.” We bring Idit into our lives when we have the courageous compassion, the gevurah shebetiferet, to bear witness to the pain of others.
17. Tiferet she'beTiferet
Compassion within Compassion
Hannah (I Sam. 1–2)
Hannah is barren. Although her husband loves her, her husband's second wife torments her because of her infertility. Hannah goes to the shrine of the Tabernacle and prays for a son, promising that if she becomes pregnant with a son she will dedicate him to the Tabernacle. The priest Eli observes her lips move and thinks she is a drunkard. She protests that she is not drunk; she is a troubled woman who is speaking to God in her heart. Eli blesses her, and soon afterward she gives birth to a son, Samuel, whom she dedicates to the Tabernacle as soon as he is weaned. Every year from then on, Hannah makes a pilgrimage and brings Samuel a new coat that she has made.
Tiferet is the sefirah of the heart, and Hannah speaks to God in her heart, telling God of her desire to have a child. When confronted by someone who does not value her prayer because it is not public, she defends herself, knowing that God hears even the most private of prayers. It is appropriate that Hannah represent tiferet shebetiferet, the essence of compassion, the depths of the heart. We embody Hannah when we express the true desires of our heart, asking for the compassion of the Divine and of human beings.
18. Netzach she'beTiferet
Endurance within Compassion
Widow of a Prophet (II Kings 4:1–7)
One Elisha story in the book of Kings tells of the widow of a certain "son of the prophets." According to rabbinic midrash, she is the wife of Obadiah, who saved the lives of many prophets of God. This widow comes to Elisha to tell him that a creditor is about to seize her children as slaves. Elisha's first question is: "What do you have in the house?" She informs him that she has nothing but a jug of oil. He tells her to borrow many vessels from her neighbors. Then she is to shut herself and her children in her home and pour the oil into these vessels until they are all filled. The widow does this, and miraculously, she has enough oil to fill all the vessels (this is clearly a precursor to the Chanukah story)! She sells the oil to pays her bills, and she and her children live on the rest of the money.
Obadiah's widow trusts in the prophet Elisha, but he tells her that the miracle is in her own hands. She cannot save her children unless she is willing to ask for help from her neighbors, willing to keep pouring as long as there is an empty vessel. The miracle of compassion occurs as a result of her own perseverance. We best imitate Obadiah's widow and her sefirah of netzach shebetiferet when we are willing to work to bring about miracles.
19. Hod she'beTiferet
The Glory Within Compassion
Asnat (Gen. 41:44–52)
Asnat, the wife of Joseph, is the daughter of the Egyptian priest of On. According to one midrash, Asnat is the daughter of Dinah (see day 11), conceived when Dinah is raped, and Dinah's brothers want to kill her. Jacob puts an amulet around Asnat's neck that says “Holy to the Lord.” The angel Gabriel comes and takes her to Egypt. When Joseph is sold into slavery, he ends up in the house where Asnat has been raised. In one midrash, while Egyptian women are throwing jewelry at Joseph in honor of his beauty, Asnat throws Joseph her amulet, and he recognizes her secret identity. When Joseph becomes Pharaoh's advisor, he asks for Asnat as his wife. Later, one legend says, it is Asnat who asks Joseph to bring her two children, Ephraim and Manasseh, to be blessed by Jacob, knowing how important it is that they understand where they came from.
Asnat is hidden in Potiphar's home to save her life. She receives this compassion because although she was born from a cruel act, she is a pure soul. Later, in spite of the secrecy around her birth, she discovers ways of honoring all the pieces of her identity. Hod can signify hiddenness, and tiferet can mean truth. Asnat is hod shebetiferet – hidden truth. We are most like Asnat when we open to the secrets of our past and allow our truth to be revealed.
20. Yesod she'beTiferet
The Connectivity Within Compassion
Batya/Pharaoh's daughter (Exodus 2)
The Pharaoh who enslaves the Hebrews is the epitome of all that is cruel. Yet his daughter, while bathing in the Nile, chooses to save a baby Hebrew. Pharaoh's daughter takes the child she finds in a reed basket and raises him as a Egyptian prince. She names him Moses, “drawn out.” Batya is able to reach across lines of class and nationality and show compassion for others.
Without Pharaoh's daughter, whom the Rabbis name Batya, “daughter of God,” there would be no Exodus. Batya represents yesod shebetiferet, the connection of compassion. We can follow in Batya's footsteps by reaching out to those who are unlike us and connecting with them in a kind and caring way.
The day of yesod she'betiferet is also Yom ha'Atzma'ut—Israeli Independence Day. Batya symbolizes all those who take tremendous risks to help the Jewish people, and also those who work across national and religious lines to create peace and justice for all those who dwell in the land of Israel.
21. Malchut she'beTiferet
Majesty within Compassion
The Witch of Endor (I Sam. 28)
King Saul's monarchy is collapsing. His prophet, Samuel, tells him that God no longer wants him to be king. His rival, David, is gaining power, and Saul's own children support David. When Samuel dies, Saul is desperate. He goes to a woman in Endor who is known as a medium, and asks her to raise Samuel from the dead. The woman of Endor raises Samuel from the dead, envisioning him as a god-like man cloaked in a robe. Samuel's message is a cruel one—the next day, Saul and his sons will die in battle. Saul sinks onto the ground, miserable, as Samuel disappears. The witch speaks to Saul and encourages him to eat and lie down. She is one of the only people to show Saul compassion in the days before his demise. An old woman whose profession is despised by the Israelite religion, she performs the work of midwiving Saul into death.
The witch of Endor, though she may be a controversial figure, represents malkhut shebetiferet, the dignity of compassion. She gives Saul respect and care on the last night of his life. We are most like the witch of Endor when we honor the transitions of life, both beginnings and endings.
Week 4: Netzach/Endurance, Perseverance, Victory, Determination
22. Chesed she'beNetzach
Love within Endurance
Rebekah (Genesis 24–28)
Rebekah, Abraham's great-niece, is going to the well to fetch water for her family when a stranger appears and asks her for water. Rebekah not only runs to quench the stranger's thirst, but offers to draw water for all of his camels as well! When the stranger asks her to accompany him back to Canaan to marry Isaac, Rebekah agrees to this request quickly and fearlessly. According to midrash, when Isaac brings Rebekah into the tent of his mother Sarah, Rebekah re-institutes all the household practices of Sarah: candlelighting, bread-baking, and hospitality.
Rebekah’s two sons, Jacob and Esau, are in constant conflict even in the womb. She asks God what to do, and God tells her that one day Esau will serve Jacob. When her sons grow up, Rebekah tells Jacob to dress as Esau in order to get Isaac's blessing. Then she sends Jacob away to save him from Esau's anger. She never sees him again, but Jacob’s future is assured through her actions.
Rebekah doesn't always seem to act with chesed. She lies to her husband and desperately disappoints her eldest son. Yet Rebekah has great wisdom: she knows what must ultimately happen and acts to bring it about. Everything Rebekah does is an act of love for a future she will never see. We are most like Rebekah when we behave with chesed shebe’netzach: loving perseverance in bringing about the future.
23. Gevurah she'beNetzach
Strength within Endurance
Tziporah (Exodus 2:16–22, 4:24–26, 18:1–12)
Tziporah is the daughter of Yitro, the Midianite priest who takes Moses in after he flees Egypt. Moses marries Tziporah and becomes a shepherd. After Moses receives the vision of the burning bush, he returns to Egypt to free the Hebrews. Tziporah and Moses' two sons accompany him on this journey, but something strange happens. At a night encampment in the wilderness, God attacks Moses and seeks to kill him. Tziporah takes a flint, cuts off her son's foreskin, and throws it at Moses' feet, saying: "A bridegroom of blood are you to me!" God leaves Moses alone because of Tziporah’s actions
Why does Tziporah act in this way? Rabbinic legend says that God is angry with Moses for failing to circumcise his son, and communicates this to Tziporah by causing Moses' sexual organs to swell! So Tziporah circumcises her infant son, making him part of the Jewish people. Tziporah's instinct is to act to save the life of her husband and her children. In this respect she represents gevurah shebenetzach, strong endurance. She must call on her power to cut, and even to cause pain, in order to protect life. We are most like Tziporah when we endure discomfort in order to achieve a lasting purpose.
24. Tiferet she'beNetzach
Compassion within Endurance
Hagar (Gen. 16, 21)
Hagar is the Egyptian maidservant of Sarai, the wife of Abram. When Sarai cannot conceive, she gives Hagar to Abram as a concubine, hoping she will be "built up" through Hagar’s children. Hagar conceives, and thinks less of her mistress. Sarai, incensed by Hagar's behavior, abuses Hagar until she runs away. An angel appears to Hagar and tells Hagar to return and endure Sarai's harsh treatment, promising that she shall bear a son and call him Ishmael.
Hagar bears Ishmael and he grows up. Sarai, who has been renamed Sarah, conceives in her old age and gives birth to a Isaac. After Isaac's weaning-feast, Sarah sees Ishmael playing. She demands that Hagar and Ishmael be expelled. Reluctantly, Abraham complies. Hagar wanders in the desert, searching for water for herself and her son. God opens Hagar's eyes so that she sees a well of water. Hagar is the exemplar of tiferet shebe’netzach, the compassion of endurance. Her endurance and will allow her to discover God's wellspring of compassion. We are most like Hagar when we are able to open our eyes, even in the midst of our daily struggle to survive, and see the compassion that is available to us.
25. Netzach she'beNetzach
Endurance within Endurance
Naamah/Noah's wife (Gen. 4:22; Gen. 6:9–9:17)
Not long after creation, God brings a great flood on the earth to destroy the wickedness of humankind. Only Noah and his family are saved. Noah's wife is mentioned in the narrative but she is not given a name. Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, in a modern midrash, tells a story about Naamah. She writes that while Noah is saving pairs of animals by taking them aboard the ark, Naamah is collecting every seed and bulb so that the plants of the earth will also be saved from the flood.
Naamah goes with her husband and children into the ark. She endures while the world is destroyed and rebuilt around her. She preserves life and enters a new world to raise future generations. She holds the tools of life. She is the netzach in netzach, the deepest urge to endure. We are most like Naamah when we endure through the storm, prepared to create the future.
26. Hod she'beNetzach
Glory within Endurance
Nechushta (II Kings 24:8–17)
In ancient Israel, the position of the queen mother was an important political office. When the names of the kings of Judah and Israel are listed, the names of the queen mothers always appear as well. When one of the last of the kings of Judah, Yehoyachin, is exiled to Babylon, the Bible mentions that his mother, Nechushta, daughter of Elnatan, is exiled with him.
We don't know anything about Nechushta but her name. Nechushta, “the bronze one,” reminds us of the bronze serpents Moses uses to heal the Israelites in the wilderness (Num. 21:4–9). Nechushta’s name is a reminder of the healing that the Shekhinah can bring. A midrash about Nechushta claims that her doors were always open. Perhaps her doors remained open in exile so that, like the bronze serpent, she could nourish and heal the other exiles. Nechushta is hod shebe'netzach, the humility, glory and grace we exhibit when we endure. We are most like Nechushta when we find ways of nurturing trust and healing in a broken world.
27. Yesod she'beNetzach
Connection within Endurance
Adah and Tzilah (Gen. 4:17–26)
Lamech, Cain's descendant, marries two women, Adah and Tzilah. According to one midrash, Lamech asks to have sexual intercourse with his wives, and they say: "The Flood [of Noah] is coming! If we listen to you, we will have children destined for the grave!" They do not want to be fertile, since they have determined that the world will soon be destroyed. Lamech asks Adam to judge between him and his wives. Adam asks Adah and Tzilah to return to their husband, and the women reply: "Physician, heal your own limp!" (Since the death of his son Abel, Adam has been living separately from Eve.) So, Adam returns to Eve, and she gives birth to Seth, who will be the ancestor of Noah. Adah and Tzilah agree to return to Lamech.
What convinces Adah and Tzilah that humanity should continue is their knowledge that Adam and Eve will choose to invest in each other and in their children. Adah and Tzilah represent the desire for human community. We demonstrate yesod shebenetzach, the connection of eternity, by creating loving relationships and families. We are most like Adah and Tzilah when we take risks in order to make a future with those we love.
28. Malkhut she'beNetzach
Majesty within Endurance
Ritzpah/Saul's concubine (II Sam. 21:1–13)
While David is king over Israel, he executes some of Saul’s relatives for political reasons: the two sons of Ritzpah, a concubine of Saul, and five sons of Merav, Saul's elder daughter. He hands these men over to be impaled by the tribe of the Gibeonites at the beginning of the barley harvest (that is, at the time of the counting of the Omer.) Ritzpah, the mother of two of the dead men, spreads out sackcloth on a rock near the site of the executions. She stays with the bodies and does not let birds of prey land on them to devour them. When David is told what Ritzpah has done, he gathers up the bones of the men who have been impaled, and buries them in Saul's ancestral tomb.
Ritzpah uses her quality of netzach, her endurance and determination, in the service of human dignity (malkhut). She may only be a concubine, but she is made in God's image. She deserves to mourn in a proper manner, and her sons deserve the decency of burial. By protecting the bodies of her children, she forces the powers that be to pay attention to her cause.
We are most like Ritzpah when we demonstrate the malkhut shebenetzach, the majesty of the persevering human spirit by refusing to be treated as less than human, even when we face power far greater than our own.
Week 5: Hod/Glory, Acceptance, Receptivity, Prophecy
29. Chesed she'beHod
Love within Glory
Hatzlelponit/Manoach's wife (Judges 13–14)
In the region of the tribe of Dan lives a man named Manoach, and his wife, who is barren. A midrash calls Manoach’s wife Hatzlelponit. Hatzlelponit is in the fields when an angel appears to her and tells her she will bear a son. This child must be a nazir (one who, as a religious act, vows to renounce wine, leave his or her hair long, and stay away from dead bodies) his whole life. His mother must drink no wine during her pregnancy. Hatzlelponit runs to tell her husband what has happened. Her husband prays to the angel to appear again. The angel does appear, but only to Hatzlelponit. Again the persistent woman runs to get her husband, but when Manoach huffs and puffs into the angel's presence, the angel tells him: “The woman must take care about all that I told her.” When the angel disappears, Manoah is afraid that he will die, but Hatzelponit tells him: "Had God desired to kill us... he would not have shown us all these things." The child Hatzlelponit bears is Samson, who becomes a judge in Israel.
It is because Hatzlelponit has the gift of humility, acceptance and readiness (hod) that she is able to understand God's love (chesed) when she receives it. Unlike her husband, Hatzlelponit is comfortable with the appearance of angels. She knows that the prophecy she has received is one of love.
We are most like Hatzlelponit when we are able to take in the unexpected miracles of our lives with joy and gratitude, and without fear.
30. Gevurah she'beHod
Strength within Glory
Sarah (Gen. 12–23)
The Bible does not record that Sarai receives a call from God to go forth into a new land, but she does go, with her husband Abram, to the land of Canaan. Both Abram and Sarai receive new names—Abraham and Sarah—and both receive a charge from God to found a people.
Yet Sarah is barren. She offers her handmaid Hagar to Abraham as a substitute, but when Hagar becomes pregnant, Sarah is jealous and torments Hagar. Hagar's son Ishmael is born, but God continues to promise that the covenant with Abraham will only be fulfilled through the womb of Sarah. Three mysterious angels come to Sarah's tent and announce that she will become pregnant. She laughs at them, but she does become pregnant, and gives birth to a son whom she names Isaac, meaning "laughter." One legend says that Sarah’s milk is so abundant, although she is ninety, that she is able to breastfeed the children of all the nobles in the land of Canaan.
Sarah orders Hagar and Ishmael expelled—perhaps because of jealousy, or perhaps because she foresees an inevitable clash between the two boys. Abraham protests, but God orders Abraham to obey Sarah's voice. Then God orders Abraham to take her son Isaac to Mount Moriah and sacrifice him. One ancient midrash suggests that Sarah only hears of what happens afterward, and the shock is so great that her soul leaves her.
The themes of hod—the glory of Sarah's miraculous pregnancy, and the truth of her voice—and of gevurah—the afflictions that Sarah causes and experiences—intertwine in Sarah's life. We are most like Sarah when we are aware of the spiritual contradictions of our lives, yet strive to transcend them.
31. Tiferet she'beHod
Compassion within Glory
Elisheva (Ex. 6:23)
Elisheva is the sister of Nachshon son of Aminadav—the one who, according to legend jumps into the Sea of Reeds ahead of the Israelites. We don't know anything else about her other than that she is the wife of Aaron and mother of four sons. Elisheva becomes the mother of the priestly line—all kohanim, all hereditary members of the Israelite priesthood, are descended from her.
But who was she as an individual? What merit does Elisheva have that makes her a mother of priests? One legend about Elisheva is that she was one of the midwives who saved Israelite children when Pharaoh ordered the Egyptians to kill them. A modern midrash I wrote about Elisheva suggests that Elisheva was a midwife who saved the life of a mother and her first-born son on the night of the tenth plague. Because of her compassion, she merited the glory of the priesthood. For me, Elisheva has become the symbol of tiferet shebehod, the compassion that resides in the glory of the priesthood. We best exemplify the qualities of Elisheva when we put compassion at the center of our ritual and spiritual lives.
32. Netzach she'beHod
Endurance within Glory
Naomi (Ruth 1–4)
The book of Ruth begins with the story of a husband and wife, Elimelekh and Naomi, and their two sons, Machlon and Chilion. When there is a famine in the land of Judah, the family leaves Bethlehem and goes to the land of Moab. While they are in Moab, Elimelekh dies, leaving Naomi a widow. Naomi's two sons marry Moabite women—Ruth and Orpah. Then the sons too die. Naomi hears that the famine in Judah is over, and makes the decision to return home.
Naomi's two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, have no sons. Naomi encourages the two young women to return home to their mothers. Orpah kisses her mother-in-law and returns home to her own family. But Ruth clings to Naomi, saying: “Do not ask me to leave you or return for following you, for where you go I will go....” And so Naomi allows Ruth to follow her back to Bethlehem. Ruth works tirelessly for Naomi, gleaning in the fields to bring Naomi food. Naomi rouses herself to help Ruth, creating a plan whereby Ruth can convince Naomi's wealthy kinsman Boaz to marry her. In the end, Ruth brings the son she bears to Boaz home to Naomi.
Hod is the sefirah of acceptance. Naomi achieves netzach shebehod, the victory of acceptance, because, even after so much has been taken from her, she is willing to accept Ruth's love. We welcome Naomi’s presence into our lives when we learn to receive the love we are given.
33. Hod she'beHod
Glory within Glory
Chuldah (II Kings 22; II Chron. 34:14–28)
A righteous king of Judah, named Josiah, discovers that the high priest has discovered a sacred scroll in the Temple. But Josiah does not know if the scroll is authentically the word of God. He asks a delegation of his royal officers to go to Chuldah, a prophetess who lives in Jerusalem, and find out from her whether he should govern according to the words of the mysterious scroll. Chuldah delivers her verdict: the scroll is authentic. Chuldah, a woman, is the first person in the Bible ever to canonize a text. Hod, glory, can refer to prophecy, and Chuldah represents hod shebe'hod, prophecy within prophecy, for her prophecy allows Israel to experience the prophetic voice in a new way.
The thirty-third day of the Omer is also Lag B’Omer. Lag B’Omer is a minor holiday frequently celebrated with bonfires and with the cutting of the hair of young boys. It is a holiday concerned with mystical revelations, marking the yahrtzeit (death date) of the mystic Shimon bar Yochai and the day manna fell from heaven. It is appropriate that Chuldah be remembered on a day that celebrates prophecy.
34. Yesod she'beHod
Connection within Glory
Avigayil/Abigail (I Sam. 25)
The young David, running away from King Saul, is earning his living by intimidating local farmers into providing him with bribes in return for the safety of their livestock. One wealthy landowner, Naval, refuses to pay. David sets out with his men to kill Naval, but Naval’s wise and beautiful wife, Avigayil, sets out to meet David, bringing with her bread, wine, sheep, raisins, figs, and other rich foods. She delivers an eloquent speech asking David not to shed blood, for shedding blood will taint David's future kingdom. David, astonished, cries: “Blessed be your good sense, and blessed be you!” Naval hears of what has happened and dies of consternation, and David takes Avigayil as a wife.
Avigayil convinces David to accept her words because of her deep ability to connect. Because she predicts David's kingship, Avigayil becomes one of the seven women mentioned by the Talmud as prophetesses. So it is appropriate that she symbolize yesod shebehod—the connection of prophecy. We are most like Avigayil when we use our gifts to connect deeply with others.
35. Malkhut she'beHod
Majesty within Glory
Achsah (Joshua 15:13–19; Judges 1:10–15)
Achsah is the daughter of Caleb, one of the men who leads the conquest of the land of Canaan. When the Israelites enter the land, Joshua assigns Caleb part of the land of Judah. Caleb promises his daughter Achsah to the man who can conquer the city of Kiriat-Sefer (city of the book!). Caleb's cousin Otniel conquers the city, and Caleb gives Achsah to Otniel in marriage. As Achsah is leaving her father's home, she asks her father for a dowry of land with springs of water. Her father gives her the area of Upper and Lower Gulot (springs) as a wedding gift.
In midrash, Caleb is the husband of Miriam, the prophetess associated with a miraculous well. It appears that Achsah is asking, not for territory, but for access to her mother's spiritual gift of abundant water. Achsah, although she is given away like an object, finds a way to reclaim her sense of malkhut, of personhood and individual sovereignty, by asking for a gift—invoking the quality of hod or receptivity. We are most like Achsah when we claim our own personhood by asking for our own physical, intellectual, and spiritual inheritance.
Week 6: Yesod/Connectivity, Intimacy, Generativity, Foundation
36. Chesed she'beYesod
Love within Connection
Rachav (Joshua 2)
When the Israelites prepare to invade the city of Jericho, two spies enter the city and lodge with a prostitute named Rachav. The king of Jericho hears that the spies have come, and orders Rachav to produce the two men. Instead, she hides them under stalks of flax on her roof. Under cover of night, Rachav lets the two men down the city wall by means of a red cord. She tells the two men that everyone in her city has heard about the miracles God has done for Israel, and that she believes in God’s power. The men promise that if she keeps their mission secret, they will save her and her entire family—all she has to do is display the red cord in her window. When Joshua attacks the city and its walls fall, he spares Rachav and her family. In fact, one midrash (Ruth Rabbah 2:1) says that she saved two hundred families in addition to her own.
Rachav is caught in a war between her city and a group of foreigners who need land and resources. She escapes this conflict by giving chesed to two Israelite men who are in her power, and demanding chesed from them. Rachav, a prostitute, deals in sexual connection (yesod) as a profession. She understands the power of chesed shebeyesod, the love within connection. She uses a red cord to connect herself to a new people, so that she can save herself and the family she loves. We invite Rachav into our lives when we turn enemies into friends by doing acts of chesed.
37. Gevurah she'beYesod
Strength within Connectivity
Tamar, daughter of David (II Sam. 13)
King David's eldest son Amnon has been lovesick for his half-sister Tamar, but he knows he cannot have her because she is a virgin princess. Amnon pretends to be sick and asks David to send Tamar to him to make cakes so he may get well. David agrees to this odd request, and Tamar goes to Amnon's house. While Tamar is cooking for Amnon, he seizes her and rapes her. Tamar pleads with Amnon, arguing that his behavior is wrong, but Amnon does not listen to her. Then, disgusted by her presence, he throws her out. Tamar cries and tears her ornamented royal clothes. She goes to the home of her full brother Avshalom, who takes her in and advises her to be silent. Two years later, Avshalom avenges his sister's rape by killing Amnon.
David’s daughter Tamar represents gevurah shebeyesod, the limitations of sexual connection. She is a voice against violating the intimate boundaries of others. We are most like Tamar when we demand that our community never tolerate sexual violence and insist that all people, women and men, be free from sexual abuse.
38. Tiferet she'beYesod
Compassion within Connection
Avishag (I Kings 1)
When King David is old, he lies in his bed and shivers. His servants suggest that a young woman be brought to warm his bed, and search for a beautiful girl. They find the “extraordinarily beautiful” Avishag the Shunammite, and bring her to David. She serves the king, but they are not sexually intimate because David is unable. Avishag is a young woman appointed to be bedwarmer for an old and powerful man. No one seems to consult her about how she feels, though a number of Yiddish poems imagine her writing a melancholy letter to her mother.
Yet Avishag's task is not a sexual one. She is a caretaker to someone who is old and sick, who needs her help to experience human warmth. Many of us at one time or another will have to care for someone who is young, elderly, ill, or impaired—to be intimate with their bodies and offer human connection to their souls. Like Avishag, caretakers are challenged to achieve tiferet shebe'yesod—compassion embodied in intimacy. We experience Avishag's presence in our lives when we provide for the physical needs of others with compassion and gentleness.
39. Netzach she'beYesod
Endurance within Connection
The Daughters of Tzelafchad (Num. 27:1–11; Num. 36; Jos. 17:3–6)
While the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness, Moses assigns the males of each tribe a portion of land in Canaan. Tzelafchad, a man of the tribe of Manasseh, has died, leaving behind five daughters—Machlah, Tirtzah, Choglah, Milcah, and Noa. These five brave women appear in front of Moses to ask for an inheritance of land in their father's name. Moses takes the matter before God, and God replies: “The daughters of Tzelafchad have spoken rightly—give them an inheritance among their father's kinsmen.” But there is a catch—the daughters can only marry within their tribe, so that their land will not pass to sons who belong to a different clan.
The daughters of Tzelafchad cannot argue for equality—even after their case is heard, daughters will not inherit alongside their brothers. Only daughters without brothers will inherit. But what Machlah, Tirtzah, Choglah, Milcah, and Noa can and do achieve is an acknowledgement by the Israelite people that daughters have a strong connection to their family, to their past, and to their land. The daughters of Tzelafchad are courageous enough to ask that God, Moses, and the community recognize the seriousness of their love and commitment. They are exemplars of netzach shebeyesod—the victory that arises out of connection. We act like the daughters of Tzelafchad when we organize to confront injustice, and when we demand that others take our values and commitments seriously.
40. Hod she'beYesod
The Glory within Connection
The Queen of Sheba (I Kings 10:1–12)
The Queen of Sheba comes from a far land in Africa to King Solomon’s court because she has heard of the wisdom of Solomon and wants to test him with difficult questions. She arrives bringing camels, spices, gold, and jewels. She asks the king many questions, and there is nothing he does not know—she is delighted by his wisdom. In some legends, she and Solomon become lovers. There is a story that today's Ethiopian Jews are descended from Solomon's union with the Queen of Sheba.
It appears that the Queen of Sheba is simply curious. She hears of something extraordinary she has not seen—a wise king—and she sets out to discover whether what she has heard is true. She brings gifts from her own land and exchanges them for the gifts that Solomon gives her. Through this exchange she gains material wealth, intellectual wisdom—and perhaps a friend. The Queen of Sheba represents hod shebe'yesod—the receptivity that comes from a desire to connect. We are most like her when we are curious about the world, and when we have interest in everything around us.
41. Yesod she'beYesod
The Connectivity within Connectivity
Shulamit (Song of Songs 1–8)
The Song of Songs is a love poem full of images: a maiden in a garden longing for her shepherd lover, a man praising a woman with dark eyes like doves, a city where lovers are apart and yet together. The woman of the Song of Songs is named once in the poem—Shulamit. Perhaps her name is a reminder of her character—peaceful, whole, complete. Shulamit goes out searching for the one she loves. “Let us go into the vineyards," she cries. “Let us see if the vine has flowered, if the blossoms have opened.” Her lover answers her in a similarly rich and eager tone. The sensuality of the Song of Songs is free and gentle, based in loving relationship. It is not violent but playful, not hierarchical but poetic.
Shulamit teaches us about the power of deep intimacy with humans and with nature. She is yesod shebeyesod, perfect connection. We welcome her into our gardens when we experience our intimate relationships as loving, equal, and fluid—as part of the song of everything.
42. Malchut she'beYesod
Majesty within Connectivity
Tamar (Gen. 38)
Tamar is the daughter-in-law of Judah, the son of Jacob. Judah, after selling Joseph into Egypt, separates from his brothers and takes a Canaanite wife. When his eldest son is old enough, Judah finds him a wife, Tamar. Er dies not long after the wedding. Tamar has no child, so the rule of levirate marriage applies. In levirate marriage, the brother of a deceased man marries the deceased man's childless widow, in order to provide his brother with substitute offspring. Judah marries his second son, Onan, to Tamar, but God causes Onan to die too. Judah tells Tamar to go home to her family until the third son, Shelah, is grown up. Shelah grows up but Tamar is not given to him in marriage—she remains a childless widow, bound to Judah's family, but in name only.
Meanwhile, Judah's wife dies. Tamar veils herself and dresses as a prostitute. She goes out to sit by the city gate, and Judah hires her. Tamar becomes pregnant. Judah wants to have Tamar burned, but Tamar shows him the objects he gave her when he lay with her. Judah acknowledges his wrong, and Tamar gives birth to twins, Peretz and Zerach. Peretz becomes the ancestor of King David.
Placed in a desperate and lonely situation, Tamar uses sexual connection to force Judah to acknowledge his responsibility to her. The connection Tamar forms with Judah restores fairness, gives Tamar a chance at a full life, and gives Judah an opportunity to repent. Tamar represents malkhut shebe'yesod—the majesty that can arise out of intimate connection. We open to Tamar's influence when we form relationships that bring lasting fullness to others and to ourselves.
Week 7: Malkhut: Majesty, Dignity, Royalty, Divine Presence
43. Chesed she'beMalkhut
Love within Majesty
Ruth (Ruth 1–4)
Ruth, a Moabite woman, marries the son of Naomi, an Israelite woman who has come to live in Moab because of a famine in the land of Judah. When Naomi's sons and husband die, Naomi decides to go home to Bethlehem. She wants to leave her daughters-in-law behind, but Ruth refuses to return to her family. She pleads with Naomi to let Ruth come with her. Naomi relents and the two walk on together toward Bethlehem, where they will be poor and without protection. Ruth chooses to stay with Naomi out of faith in Naomi's God or out of love for Naomi herself.
This act of chesed from one woman to another is followed by many more acts of chesed. Ruth works hard in the field, gleaning the barley that the harvesters have dropped, so that Naomi will have something to eat. While she is there, Boaz, a wealthy landowner and kinsman of Naomi, notices her and speaks kindly to her. Ruth tells Naomi what has happened, and Naomi conceives the plan that Ruth and Boaz should marry. Naomi tells Ruth to dress in fine clothes and anoint herself, then lie down on the threshing floor where Boaz is sleeping. When Boaz awakes, Ruth asks him to act as a "redeeming kinsman," and perform a levirate marriage with her (see day 42). Boaz arranges a meeting of the town elders and obtains permission to marry Ruth. The people bless Ruth, and in time she gives birth to a son, Oved, who is the grandfather of King David.
The day of chesed shebe'malkhut begins the week prior to the holiday of Shavuot, and Ruth's story is traditionally read in synagogues on Shavuot because of her dedication to the Jewish people. Ruth is a powerful force for chesed, first in her relationship with Naomi and later in her connection to Boaz. The beginning of Ruth Rabbah, a midrashic work, tells us that the entire book of Ruth was written to show how great is the reward for doing acts of chesed. Yet Ruth's story has an even deeper message. The story of King David and of the Messiah must begin with an act of kindness. Ruth is chesed shebe'malkhut—the love inside the kingdom, the love of the Divine Presence, the love that flows through the whole world. We are most like Ruth when we do gemilut chasadim—acts of lovingkindness—for the sake of increasing God's presence in the world.
44. Gevurah she'beMalkhut
Strength within Majesty
Michal (I Sam. 18:20–29; I Sam. 19:8–17; II Sam. 3:12–16; II Sam. 6)
Michal is the daughter of King Saul, and King Saul promises Michal to his rival David as a wife, thinking that his daughter will help him keep an eye on David. Michal refuses her father's commands. Instead, Michal helps David escape her murderous father, using the clever ruse of putting a stone idol in David's bed, with goat hair on top. David runs off to the wilderness, and Saul forces Michal to marry another man. When Saul dies and David becomes king, David demands Michal as part of the nation's peace settlement. Michal's husband Paltiel follows her, weeping. Michal says nothing, and she does not weep. Once she is in David's house, she remains proud. When David dances and whirls before the Ark as it is brought into Jerusalem, Michal despises him for what she regards as an obscene display. The text records that to her dying day Michal had no children—either because she was barren or because David refused to have sex with her.
There is something untouchable about Michal's pride. The Talmud records that she put on tefillin, and the sages did not stop her from doing so. She chose to perform a ritual normally denied women, and no one dared to tell her she should not. Michal shows courage in defending her husband from her father, and later shows considerable strength in standing up to her husband when she does not like his behavior. Michal represents gevurah shebe'malkhut—the “strength of majesty,” or the “limits on royal power.” We are most like her when we are willing to question the improper behavior of the powerful.
45. Tiferet she'beMalkhut
Compassion within Majesty
Rachel (Gen. 29–32, Jer. 31:15–17)
The beautiful shepherdess Rachel is Jacob's beloved. Jacob serves his unscrupulous uncle Laban for seven years in order to marry Rachel. Laban disguises Rachel’s older sister Leah as Rachel, leading her to Jacob's marriage bed. Jacob is willing to serve Laban another seven years for Rachel. Yet Rachel is barren, and this causes her great anguish. She offers her handmaid Bilhah to Jacob so that Rachel can adopt the handmaid's children. Rachel even offers Leah a night with Jacob in return for mandrakes, an herbal remedy for infertility. Finally, after Leah has borne six children, God has compassion on Rachel, and she gives birth to a son, Joseph. Then, on the road near Bethlehem, in a heartrending scene, Rachel dies in childbirth with her son Benjamin. Later midrash imagines Joseph praying at her tomb.
Many pilgrims today go to Rachel’s tomb to ask for fertility. Rachel is also known for her powers of intercession with God. In a legend in Lamentations Rabbah, God is angry with the Israelites for worshipping other gods, and swears that they will never return from exile. All the patriarchs and prophets plead with God, but God refuses to listen. Finally, Rachel reminds God that when her sister Leah lay with Jacob on their wedding night, Rachel hid under the bed, speaking in her own voice, so that Leah would not be discovered and shamed. She overcame her jealousy for her flesh-and-blood sister. Should not God overcome any jealousy as well? Upon hearing this, God relents and promises to redeem the exiles. According to the kabbalah, it is Rachel, who guards the Jews in exile, who represents malkhut, the sefirah of the Shekhinah. Rachel exemplifies the compassion of the Shekhinah for her people—tiferet shebemalkhut. We are most like Rachel when we model in our own lives the way we want to see all people treated.
46. Netzach she'beMalkhut
Endurance within Majesty
Yehosheva (II Kings 11)
Yehosheva is granddaughter of Jezebel, the queen of Israel who orders the prophets of God killed. She is also the daughter of Atalya, a queen mother of Israel who orders all the males of the royal house killed, even her own grandsons, so that she can assume the throne. Yet Yehosheva defies her mother and acts to save one of the king's sons. Yehosheva hides away young Yoash and his nurse in a secret room in the Temple. Six years later, Yehosheva's husband, the high priest Yehoyada, anoints Yoash as king, and has Atalya executed. From a woman's point of view, the story is disturbing, as it depicts powerful women as conscienceless and unjust. But even if we read the story as it stands, Yehosheva, a woman, takes center stage as a moral personality.
Yehosheva has a choice—she can be loyal to her mother, and perhaps become queen herself, or she can act against her mother’s callous cruelty. Yehosheva's decision to save a child and uphold his kingship shows that her commitment is to righteousness and not only to political power. Yehosheva represents the victory, netzach, of malkhut, God's sovereignty in the world. We are most like Yehosheva when we do not idealize our own power, but rather use our strength to increase God's power in the world.
47. Hod she'beMalkhut
Glory within Majesty
Esther (Esther 1–10)
Esther, a Jewish girl growing up in Persia with her uncle Mordechai, is chosen to enter the harem of King Achashverosh after he divorces his wife Vashti (see day 9). Esther is beautiful, and the king makes her his new queen. At her uncle's request, she keeps her Jewish identity secret. Meanwhile, the king's evil advisor, Haman, has decided to exterminate the Jews. The king agrees to Haman's decree of destruction, and Mordechai goes to Esther and asks her to help. At first she refuses, saying that if she enters the king's throne room without being summoned, the king will kill her. But Mordechai convinces her, and Esther agrees to plead for her people's safety. The king grants Esther's petition, and orders Haman hung on the gallows he intended for Esther's uncle Mordechai. The Jews declare a holiday, Purim, complete with feasting and merrymaking. Esther writes down the story in a scroll and sends it to all the Jews.
When Esther stands in the throne room before the king, she is wearing royal robes—literally, she is wearing malkhut. Though Esther is not born a queen, she achieves dignity through her willingness to take dramatic action to save her people. She has not chosen her position of power, but she knows that her position must be used for the benefit of others. She is an exemplar of hod shebemalkhut—the acceptance of power. We are most like her when we ask ourselves how we can use our own power and privilege to serve God and our fellow beings.
48. Yesod she'beMalkhut
Connection within Majesty
Batsheva (II Sam. 11, I Kings 1-2)
Batsheva begins her biblical sojourn as a sex object. King David sees her bathing on a rooftop and demands that she be brought to him, even though she is married to one of David's officers. Batsheva complies. When she finds herself pregnant, David invites her husband Uriah home for a night in his wife’s bed. Uriah refuses, so David orders his general to put Uriah in the front lines where he will be killed. When Uriah dies, David has Batsheva taken to the palace, and marries her. Nathan the prophet chastises David and tells him that God will punish him for his crime. When Batsheva's son is born, the child falls ill and then dies. David mourns for his son and attempts to comfort Batsheva, but Batsheva remains a mystery. Does she hate David? Love him? Does the death of her child devastate her? How does she feel about the murder of her husband? The answer to these questions is a mystery, answered only by legends and by the many paintings of Batsheva that hang in galleries of classical art. When David dies, Batsheva is the first woman to occupy the position of gevirah, queen mother, a powerful rank in ancient Israel. As queen mother, Batsheva sits on a throne by her son Solomon (see I Kings 2).
Batsheva finds herself in a tragic situation as a young woman, one that perhaps has very little to do with who she is as a person. Yet by the time she is old she has grown into a wise, mature, and regal personage who knows what she can accomplish. She begins as yesod shebe'malkhut in one sense—she is the sexual and fertile woman who creates David's royal dynasty. But she also becomes yesod shebemalkhut in a different sense: the foundation of the kingdom, a wielder of regal eloquence and power. We are most like Batsheva when we age gracefully, using our power wisely and learning the lessons of our experience.
49. Malkhut she'beMalkhut
Majesty within Majesty
As we began the Omer with the Shekhinah who is God's immanent presence on earth, so too we end with Her. In the kabbalah, malkhut, royalty or majesty, is the sefirah of the Shekhinah, who in mystical texts is called queen, princess, crown, and other royal names. The “Sabbath queen” whom Jews greet on Friday night in synagogues is the Shekhinah in her queenly aspect. These royal images are meant to convey both the Shekhinah's power and her involvement in the welfare of those who dwell in Her world.
There is also a dark side to malkhut—it is the part of God closest to physical reality and therefore closest to death. The Shekhinah is said to share the human experience of pain and loss. When the Jews go into exile, she goes with them. The messianic age will come to pass when Her exile ends and She is reunited with the transcendent Holy One.
The forty-ninth day of the Omer is the day before Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah. On Shavuot, the Shekhinah descends on Mount Sinai to grant revelation to the people. The first section of the Zohar teaches concerning the first night of Shavuot: “Those who stay up all night to wait with the bride, the bride will not enter the wedding canopy except in their company.” So it is appropriate on the day before Shavuot, the final day of the Omer, to meditate on God's feminine presence and prepare to greet Her.
The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, written by Rabbi Jill Hammer and produced by Shir Yaakov Feit, is now available in book form. To order a copy, visit: http://isabellafreedman.org/store/omer-calendar-of-biblical-women-jill-hammer-with-shir-yaakov-feit/dp/6978