Lag B’Omer

May 3, 2018 in Rabbi Greg Harris

Today (Thursday) is Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day between Passover and Shavuot.  For almost two millennia, it has been a day of celebration attributed to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai who lived in the 2nd century CE.  Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai authored the Zohar which explored the mystical aspects of the Torah.  Legend says the Rabbi felt such devotion and gratitude for the blessings in his life, on his death bed he told his students to make this day a time of celebration rather than mourning.  He died on Lag B’Omer.  Since then, there have been celebrations and even bonfires and dancing to mark the day.  Many festivities are focused on the village of Meron in northern Israel where Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is buried.

A second Lag B’Omer tradition exists but with a darker turn.  It is said the students of another great sage, Rabbi Akiva who was Yochai’s teacher, were struck by a plague.  The Talmud teaches: It was said that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbatha to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. (BT Yevamot 62b)

The death of these students was so great that some observe the period between Passover and Lag B’Omer as a period of semi-mourning.  Weddings do not take place during this time, some men stop shaving, some forgo live music and more.   The celebration of an upshirin is also delayed during this period until Lag B’Omer.

I am struck by this verse – “because they did not treat each other with respect.”  I imagine the students of Rabbi Akiva debating and arguing about aspects of Jewish tradition.  Their passions directed at uncovering the sacred lessons of the texts.  Their devotion and argumentation pointed l’shem shamayim, in the name of the Heavens.  Over time though, their arguments might have become pointed, personal and ego driven.  I imagine their motivation shifted from drawing closer to the Divine to simply winning.

On this 33rd day of the Omer, I hear these echoes today.  Those pious students forgot how to treat each other with respect.  Today, we witness too many politicians and pundits, journalists and bloggers trying to win rather than explore nuance.  Rhetoric rather than insight passes as information.  Lag B’Omer teaches us to act better, expect more from each other, and to value engaging in argumentation which is l’shem shamayim.

Our counting will continue for 17 more days until Shavuot (night of May 19) when we will gather for a night a study – Tikkun Leil Shavuot.  With each of these days remaining, be mindful of what you are reading, how you are engaging and ask yourself if you are acting in a way which elevates or diminishes the conversation.  We can be intentional with each of these remaining days.  If we push ourselves to be the best of ourselves, we will be prepared to celebrate receiving the 10 Commandments on Shavuot.

From Passover to Shavuot, we move from freedom to responsibility.  Let’s make each day count!