Four years ago, Jerusalem-based clinical psychotherapist and Torah educator Benji Elson guided himself out of a dark personal tunnel by relying on the power of sefirat haomer (the counting of the omer).
Beginning at sundown on Sunday, March 28, the Jewish people collectively entered the period of sefirat haomer, which lasts seven full weeks and connects the holiday of Passover, when the Israelite slaves were redeemed from Egypt, to Shavuot, when the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai.
In the Bible, the command to count the omer appears in the context of the grain harvest. But like everything else in Torah, this period of time has multiple layers of meaning.
Each year, the energy of transformation, from freed slave to independent spiritual being, recurs and we are presented with the renewed opportunity to grow and change.
TO HELP people take this journey, Elson released Dance of the Omer: A Step-by-Step Guide to the Transformational Journey of Sefirat Ha’Omer.
“This book is a step-by-step guidebook on how to improve your life and become your higher, better, truer self through sefirat haomer,” he said. “It is really a seven-week self-growth and self-development course disguised as a book.”
Before they were a book, Elson’s ideas were Facebook posts and then messages in a WhatsApp group.
“Many people shared on the WhatsApp group, day after day, how aligned it was with whatever life was throwing them at the time. It’s a common experience.
“There are a bunch of books on sefirat haomer that give short snippets for each day. I tried to take the reader on a journey, starting at point A and holding their hand through the journey. The book is for anyone and everyone. It was written with the beginner and ‘uninitiated’ in mind. Every term and concept is explained in an easy and accessible way so that anyone who picks up the book can understand it. At the same time, someone who is learned in Torah can also gain from the book’s unique teachings and daily hands-on practices, which can be done by anyone, with no prior knowledge of Torah or Kabbalah needed.
“The natural audience for this book is a person who is seeking to make shifts in their life during the period of sefirat haomer and even other times throughout the year. It is also for anyone who is looking for inspiration. Through the daily teachings and the introductions to each week, the book touches on important aspects of Judaism. As such, it is also, in some ways, an introduction to Jewish philosophy and Jewish spirituality in general. It is possible to find real spirituality and real spiritual growth through the Torah. I want readers to emerge on the other side of sefirat haomer with more hope in their hearts, more light in their eyes, more strength and confidence in their actions and more direction in their life.”
The book is multi-layered.
“Each day has a teaching and exercise to help ground the teaching and propel one along the path of transformation and growth. It is a very experiential book utilizing components, theories, methods and tools of various therapeutic modalities, including Jungian psychology, guided imagery, psychodrama and more – all of which are based on my work as a psychotherapist, and all of which are rooted in Jewish texts, philosophy, theology and teachings.”
One of the central symbols employed in the book is the cycle of water.
“To guide the inner work and transformation [the book uses] the journey of the waters of Eden as they exit from the Garden through the river that the Torah tells us came out of the Garden, enter into the transformational journey of the water cycle (evaporation, condensation, precipitation, etc... ), and ultimately become, once again, the Garden, forests, fields, wheat and fruit of the bikkurim (first fruits) of Shavuot. Each week’s focus is connected to aligning with and embodying one of these water-cycle stages.”
In Dance of the Omer, Elson employs an unusual spelling for God.
“This book is meant to be an experience. It is meant to surprise and jolt readers in ways that move them to see themselves, the world, and even G!d in a new, different, and refreshing way. The word choices in the book, especially the usage of “G!d” is part of that goal. The term “God” is so loaded for so many people. It carries so many connotations and even baggage for so many. I chose to use an exclamation point in G!d’s name as a way of reminding the reader every time that they read that name that G!d and all of reality is much more expansive, surprising and awesome than we normally perceive,” he explained.
DANCE OF the Omer has inspired some international learning groups who meet online daily to work through the exercises together. Typical reader feedback, like this comment from a reader in the US, focuses on how personally these teachings resonate.
“I have so much to say… I read the teachings each and every day. Some days, like yesterday, I read it three times in a row to really hear what you were saying…. You’ve helped me understand a deeper connection that each of the sefirot have to each other. What a gift! You have also provided me with exercises each day for me to ponder and question…. And if all of that isn’t enough, you’ve sent me on a quest for my own answers to new questions!”
Elson is very connected to rhythmic energies of the Jewish calendar and its role in healing.
“Every ancient culture has its healing art,” he noted. “The calendar is the Jewish people’s ancient healing art.”
As we progress through the calendar and the Jewish year, different human emotions are emphasized, such as joy in Adar, introspection in Elul and mourning in Av.
Elson said these alterations in emotional energy allow for “different shifts of consciousness. Anything happening in the physical world has deep ramifications spiritually. We are entering into the dry season in Israel. We enter into a consciousness that is different than when we are preparing for winter’s rainy season. Sefirat haomer is the beginning of the year. We have 50 days of very intensive work in preparation for the dry season.” Elson pointed out that 50 days is the same amount of time between Elul and the end of Sukkot, which is just before the rainy season and is traditionally devoted to introspection as well.
ELSON IS already planning a second book focusing on the rest of the Hebrew year through the prism of the five levels of the soul.
In addition to his private therapeutic practice, where he works with young adults, families and couples dealing with psychological challenges such as trauma, stress and anxiety, Elson is close to receiving rabbinic ordination. He is also writing his doctoral dissertation at Yeshiva University. His research focuses on people who were raised in religious Jewish homes and who stop living an observant lifestyle.
In yet another part of his life, Elson is the educational director of the Shebet Haaretz organization, which leads transformational travel experiences, connecting Jews to each other and to nature through trips to tribal lands in Israel and to ancient villages in Mexico.
Dance of the Omer is available on Amazon, at Pomeranz Bookseller in Jerusalem or directly from the author. Go to danceoftheomer.com for details.