Shavu’ot: Self-Publishing the Unfolding Story of our Lives

By Yonatan Gordon

On March 31, 2012, the New York Times published an article entitled “Young Writers Dazzle Publisher (Mom and Dad)” about young writers who were already published authors due to the advances in print-on-demand technology. The article relates that “inspired writers of all ages” can now “bypass the traditional gatekeeping system for determining who can call himself a ‘published author.’”

In the Hebrew Calendar, this article was published a week prior to Passover and the start of the Counting of the Omer. As we will discuss, it is the Omer period leading up to the festival of Shavu’ot that is a most fitting time to start penning our own books even from a young age.

Making Each Day Count

One of the derivations of the word “book” in Hebrew (סֵפֶר) is a “counter” (סוֹפֵר). To make each day count, to show the unique quality of each day, we progress in the story of our lives. Although vital throughout the year, it is especially during the Omer period that we begin penning new pages in our autobiography.

During these seven weeks we are devoted to correcting our behavior. According to Kabbalah, each week corresponds to one of the seven emotive sefirot (starting with loving-kindness, might, beauty, etc….) which in turn are subdivided further into these same seven. In total, there are seven with seven or 49 layers of self-examination and rectification.

While those who study Kabbalah become gradually attuned to the unique spiritual properties of each of these 49 days, each of us has the ability to begin correcting ourselves. Anyone, at any moment, can pick up a pen and start taking responsibility for writing their life story. During this time period, we are all budding authors assigned with the holy task of proofreading the typographical errors we have allowed into the patterns of our behavior. Through refining the style and tone of our story, we are inserting those compelling plot twists necessary for any best-seller.

Rewriting the chapters of our personality is no easy task. That is why the 49 days of the Omer are the most special time of the year for this.

When we read a good book, we effortlessly drift through the plots and themes the author is presenting. But as anyone who has tried to write (or engage in any other form of creative expression) will testify, writing is very different than reading. For the writer, it’s all about the choice of words and cadence of the story. While writing a masterpiece takes a lot of work, for the reader, it should appear as a simple and eloquent work of art.

Much like a writer who carefully deliberates over his choice of words prior to publishing his work, our efforts to write the story of our lives generally start off discreet. Our book publishing debut recurs every year on Shavu’ot, the day when the Torah was “published” in this world for all to see. This is when the private diary of our personal development–as exemplified in our growth during the previous 49 days–is made public. This is when we begin to see the world again with a new vision and mindset.

Self-Publishing Debut

Returning to the New York Times article referenced at the start: It is fitting that “mom and dad” are the “publishers” of their newly published children. Shavu’ot is termed a “wedding day” between God and the Jewish people (husband and wife). The offspring of this marriage are the future generations. The fact that “mom and dad” are publishing their children alludes to the great aspect Shavu’ot has to actualize the potentials specifically in the young.

To become published is a sign that once discreet principles have now been made public. Like the Baal Shem Tov (founder of the Chassidic movement) who only after a time revealed his righteousness to the world. To publish is like going public. But instead of being traded on the stock exchange, a public personality or published author is now in a greater position to positively change the lives of others.

To become a published author at a young age is indicative of the drive for self-actualization which begins in the formative teenage years. When properly actualized, published teenagers can take their position early as leaders of the next generation.

The Self-Publishing Revolution

While each person individually writes his or her own autobiography, Shavu’ot is also about the collective publishing debut of a people (Street Release Date: 6 Sivan 2448).

Because our individual and collective publishing world debut occurred on Shavu’ot, it is a day that relates both to self-publishing and publishing within a publishing house.

We can use Book Expo America–the largest book publishing industry event of the year (which usually occurs during Sivan)–as a metaphor for our collective publishing debut. For our personal publishing debut, let’s use again the New York Times article (published a week before Passover and the start of the Omer).

As we will see, the difference between the New York Times article and Book Expo America signifies the transition from a “self-published” to a “publishing house” mindset.

From Self-Published to Publishing House

After reciting the Omer, Chassidic custom is to say a short prayer ending with these words:

“Therefore, may it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our fathers, that in the merit of the Sefirat Ha-Omer which I counted today, the blemish that I have caused in the sefirah … be rectified, and that I may be purified and sanctified with supernal holiness. May abundant bounty thereby be bestowed upon all the worlds. May it rectify of psyche (nefesh), spirit (ruach) and soul (neshamah) from every baseness and defect, and may it purify and sanctify us with Your supernal holiness. Amen, selah.”

A grammarian reading this prayer notices quite readily that it changed from singular to plural tense. We end off asking that the community be rectified whereas we started asking for ourselves. This prayer reminds us that while we are all budding self-published authors, we are also all part of a publishing house: The House of Israel.

These two approaches are represented in the Book Expo America conference itself. There is a track of study termed “Do It Yourself (DIY) Publishing” (now called “uPublishU”) that encourages all “aspiring writers and authors” to “learn from industry experts tips and tactics and all about the tools and technology to help them self-publish.” At the same time, the exhibit hall itself features the most experienced and successful publishers and authors in the world of publishing today.

This dual-natured approach typifies the Jewish experience of Shavuot. On the one hand, “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and passed it on to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders; the Elders to the Prophets; and the Prophets passed it on to the Men of the Great Assembly.” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:1) But on the other hand, the Torah was given that each member of the Jewish people should fulfill it.

While there is a hierarchy, it is only in order to enable the rest of the populace. The “DIY Publishing” track within the Book Expo America conference is a reminder that to be successful on the large scale, all individual members of the community must be taken care of by those more knowledgeable and experienced.

At the giving of the Torah, the 600,000 souls of Israel stood as “one man with one heart.” So too our motivation during the days preceding Shavuot is to self-publish the unfolding story of our lives, while perceiving it as part of the collective story or “book expo” of our people.

Each of us has a letter in the Torah. Shavu’ot is a time to publish each of these 600,000 letters anew.



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