Wilderness as Transition: Omer, Anxiety and the Neutral Zone

This is the time to sit with the anxiety, the ambiguity and the unknowability of our lives. This is the time to go down deep in to the deepest recesses of who we are, to find resources and riches we didn't know were there.
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We are, right now, wandering in the wilderness.

After Passover -- the Israelites' exodus from Egypt -- there is a period of seven weeks before Shavuot, the holiday celebrating God's giving of the Torah on Sinai. During this time, it is traditional to count each day with a blessing. According to the Kabbalists, each of the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot has a unique, powerful spiritual character, and the passage through these days is a sort of a journey unto itself. We have left Egypt; we have not yet gotten to Sinai. This is known as the counting of the Omer. (Omer means "sheaf," referring to the time between the barley harvest at Passover and the wheat harvest at Shavuot.)

There is a theory (offered first by author William Bridges) that transitions happen in three stages: ending, the neutral zone and beginning. In order to effectively weather any important transition in our lives -- whether in relationships, in the transition into our out of a major academic endeavor, in work, in geography -- we cannot move forward until we have let go of who we have been, and what has been, in the past. Then, there's a limnal space when we are no longer who we have been, but not yet who we will be next. Only after some time in the neutral zone will the beginning of our new selves, our new way of being in the world emerge in earnest.

Passover is, of course, a huge ending. We left Egypt, we left behind a life of slavery and crossed through the Red Sea into freedom. (One could argue, though, that most of the troubles that beset the Israelites along the way -- leading to the decree that the first generation wouldn't make it to the land of Israel -- was due to the fact that they tried to move forward into new beginnings without having fully let go of the past.)

Shavuot is a new beginning -- a life in covenant, a life guided not by demands of earthly taskmasters but, rather, Torah and the Divine imperitive.

But now, these seven weeks? This is the neutral zone.

According to Bridges, people in this intermediate space are often confused, uncertain and impatient. There may be feelings of anxiety, skepticism or low morale -- the past has been let go of, but the path to the future has not yet manifest. It's uncomfortable, being no longer this but not yet knowing what that is going to look like, how it will feel, who we will be and whether it will be any good at all.

And yet, the neutral zone is a time of rich spiritual power, a time of creativity, a time when people can try out new ways of thinking and being in the world. It can be liberating to not be constrained by old ideas about who we are, what our lives are supposed to be like. Terrifying, sure, but also exhilerating.

The neutral zone is a time of quietness, of seeking out silence in order to allow the internal waves to fold over themselves, to allow things to simmer. It's exactly a time of wilderness, desert, midbar -- a time to explore the vast, rocky expanse between the Red Sea and Sinai.

The wilderness is a difficult place. It feels like there is no end, no limit to it. It's a place of danger. Or uncertainty. Of silence. Self-care becomes a bigger priority than its ever been -- your utter surivial is at stake. The sun is unrelenting -- there's nowhere to hide, no way to hide ourselves. We feel exposed, vulnerable. It's no coincidence that everything imporant in the Bible -- prophecies, kingships, Torah -- came out in the wilderness. The wilderness pushes us to confront reality: What do I want? How hungry am I? What will satisfy me?

It's not comfortable. Of course we count the days: How long have we been holding ourselves in this in-between space? How much longer before we get to move forward confidently into the new chapter?

Soon. But it's not time yet. This is the time to sit with the anxiety, the ambiguity and the unknowability of our lives. This is the time to go down deep in to the deepest recesses of who we are, to find resources and riches we didn't know were there. And in that limnality, in the quiet -- we make ourselves ready to hear the voice of God.

For more, join the HuffPost Religion virtual community by visiting the Omer liveblog, which features inspiration and teachings for all 49 days of spiritual renewal between Passover and Shavuot.

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