February 22, 2024 ()

Lag B’Omer – Joy in the Journey

A man sitting on the deck of a boat reaches into his toolbox, pulls out a drill, and proceeds to bore a hole in the hull. Suddenly, the people sitting next to him begin to shout, “Stop! What are you doing?”

“I’m drilling a hole,” the man says. “I can do what I want. Why is it any of your business?”

“Are you kidding? We’re all together on this boat!” they exclaim. “You may think you’re only making a hole under your own seat, but because of your actions, we are all going to sink!”

This famous parable reminds us that our personal choices have ripple effects, consequences that affect others. Though we may think we can be self-sufficient, in fact, we are interconnected. As such, we must be respectful in our dealings with others, and always aware of our responsibility to treat people fairly, in our pursuit of a just and moral society.

Do you remember the character of the Count, the Dracula-like figure on Sesame Street who loved to enumerate? If the Count were Jewish, he would love this time of year, for we Jews are currently in the middle of counting the Omer. This is a daily practice intended to remind us of the link between Passover, which commemorates the exodus from Egypt, and Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The counting of the Omer brings home the notion that our redemption from slavery was not complete until we received the Torah and became a holy people.

The Talmud recounts that the students of Rabbi Akiva died in a plague during this season because they did not give each other proper respect. Rabbinic sources attested that the plague ended on Lag B’Omer–the thirty-third day of the Omer. Also, the Jewish saint, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, died on Lag B’Omer. The Kabbalah states that the sun miraculously refused to set until he passed, hence the Chasidic tradition of being surrounded by candles and bonfires on Lag B’Omer. In modern day Israel this day has morphed into one that’s celebrated with barbecues, similar to the fourth of July festivities held in America. We must not forget, however, that the Omer is also a semi-mourning period, commemorating the many thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students who died via plague so long ago. Although they were brilliant scholars, they perished because they did not treat each other with the appropriate respect granted to men of their station.

By Lag B’Omer, the thirty-third day of this counting period, however, the Jews began to treat each other with kindness and humility, and the plague receded. For this reason, Lag B’Omer is a happy occasion for Jews all over the world, who are permitted to celebrate anew with weddings, music, and outings. Families and neighbors gather together around bonfires, barbecues, and picnics, uniting to enjoy a day of community and camaraderie in a celebration of Jewish history.

The Israeli mountain-town of Meron turns Lag B’Omer into a mega-celebration. There, hundreds of thousands of people come to pray at the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a holy scholar who studied Jewish mysticism, otherwise known as Kabbalah, while he and his son hid in a cave for thirteen years to escape Roman persecution. It is said that by praying and connecting oneself to the soul of a tzaddik, a completely righteous person, one can alter the course of one’s destiny. The spirit of the tzaddik is said to inhabit the space around his gravesite and act as a conduit for sincere believers seeking G-d’s blessings. Particularly on the anniversary of the death of a tzaddik, the connection to his spirit is intensified.

As we count towards Lag B’Omer, we also look forward to the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the receiving of the Torah by the Jewish people. The Midrash teaches that every Jewish soul that would ever be born was gathered at Mount Sinai when our Creator gave the Torah to His people. Now, like then, we are all in this together. In that spirit, may we draw strength and understanding from each other and become a more unified people.