May 19, 2022

Another Holiday I Never Heard of?

Robert Lichtman Chief Jewish Learning Officer

Right here. Right now. It’s called Lag Ba’Omer, and you can click here for more, or you can stick with me.   

This is the story. 

About 2,000 years ago, which is when a lot of Jewish stories occurred, one of the greatest rabbinic sages of all time was Rabbi Akiva. His story is remarkable. He amassed a following, some say, of 24,000 students. Hold that thought. 

The period between the holidays of Passover and Shavu’ot  is a 50-day span referred to as the Omer. One year, about 2,000 years ago, Jewish tradition tells us that all 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students died in a plague during the first 32 days of this Omer period. The scope of the loss of life was tragic; it diminished everyone in that generation. But the breadth of Torah emanating from Rabbi Akiva’s students is a loss to the Jewish People and to the world forever. For that reason, these 32 days have been a period of semi-mourning where you may have noticed our Federation, in keeping with Jewish custom, refrains from public celebratory events with music. Some people refrain from shaving, also as a sign of mourning.  

But the 33rd day, the day the dying stopped, was proclaimed as a day of celebration.  Thirty-three in Hebrew is called Lag, and it’s the 33rd day of the Omer.  Hence, Lag Ba’Omer. That began Wednesday night, and ends tonight. Beautiful celebrations are taking place throughout the Jewish world. 

This is not only history; this is hyper-relevant today. Literally today.  

If you unroll a Torah scroll from beginning to end, you’ll see it divided into five sections: The Five Books of Moses. The centerpiece, the third book, is the book of Leviticus. Near the center of that centerpiece, the fulcrum upon which the entire Torah rests, is this charge from God, 

Love your neighbor as yourself.  I am God. 

Now getting back to the death of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students. The Jews at the time were searching for a reason why this plague befell them. After a period of self-examination, they concluded that although the students were well-versed in Torah, they lacked basic respect for one another. This character flaw proved fatal.  In all the Torah that they learned, somehow, they neglected to imbibe this central aspect of Jewish teaching: Love your neighbor as yourself. 

The world today would be a safer and more joyful place if we loved our neighbors as ourselves. Let’s try to do that.  

And here is one more thing to think about: How is it possible that these 24,000 rabbis neglected this admonition to love one another? After all, their master and teacher Rabbi Akiva, is quoted as saying about this command, “This is a great principal of Torah.”  Is it possible that this teaching of his fell upon 48,000 deaf ears?  

Or was it only after Rabbi Akiva witnessed the decimation of his Torah learning that we envision him going into his study with a broken heart, sharpening his quill and scratching out this lesson for future generations, ” Love your neighbor as yourself.  This is a great principle of Torah.”  

Wishing you a meaningful and enjoyable Lag Ba’Omer!