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Thoughts on Lag BaOmer

It seems that this is the season for remembrance, a time to recall those who have fallen in battle as well as those whose lives ended through acts of persecution, terrorism, and genocide.  This weekend we mark Memorial Day here in the United States, a day on which we are to pay tribute to those who in the words of Abraham Lincoln “gave the last full measure of devotion” in order to protect our country and its values.  Just two weeks before Memorial Day in our country, Israel marked its Yom HaZikaron its Day of Remembrance, memorializing those who have fallen on behalf of the establishment and defense of the State of Israel, as well as the many victims of terror over the past century.  This, in turn, was just a week after our annual commemoration of Yom HaShoah, in which we recall the Six Million of our people who perished in the Holocaust.  Truly this is a time for mourning our losses.


Traditionally, during this period between Passover and Shavuot, the period of Sefirah, the counting of the omer, one is to observe some elements of mourning.  We do not schedule weddings during this season.  Other joyous activities are avoided during these days.  Some do not cut their hair or beards to show a sense of mourning. In some places, this period was a time that commemorated the massacres of Jewish communities at the time of the Crusades in the 11th century.  It is intended to be a time for reflection, remembrance, and recalling both tragedy as well as the heroism of those who have stood up to oppression and fought for freedom and dignity of all people and for the survival of our people in particular.


According to Rabbi David Abudarham, a 14th century rabbi in Seville, known for his commentary on the prayerbook, this time of year is actually a period when the whole world is in sorrow.  He notes the forces of nature that frequently bring disaster to the produce in the field and to the fruit trees during these days.  It is a time of anxiety for the farmer.  He says that is why God wants us to count these days so that we might remember the suffering in this world and return whole-heartedly to God and pray for mercy for us, for all people, all creatures, and for the earth.


The Talmud links this period of Sefirah to the second century revolt of Bar Kochba against the Roman authorities who ruled Judea at that time. We are told that it was at this season that a plague came upon the students of Rabbi Akiva and 24,000 of them died at this time.  Some suggest that this report was a cryptic reference not to “students” but to those followers of Rabbi Akiva who was known as a strong supporter of Bar Kochba. Perhaps what was reported as a kind of plague or disease was a reference to a more insidious ailment.  When this report was written, the Romans were still the governing authority in the land, hence the need for caution by the writers of the Talmud in speaking of this tragedy.  Apparently, Bar Kochba had a great victory, a temporary success, on Lag BaOmer, the 33rd day of the counting of the omer.  So, we are told that the plague on Rabbi Akiva’s students ended on that day, giving reason for celebration.  The rabbis claim that these “students” died because they failed to give proper respect to one another. Whatever the reality of this period may have been, Lag BaOmer became a day which in Sephardic tradition marked the end of this period of oppression and mourning and for Ashkenazim, at least a pause during this time of sorrow.


Lag BaOmer thus is a day when weddings may take place and other types of celebration are permitted.  It is considered to be a scholars’ holiday where often Jewish day schools and Hebrew schools proclaim a field day and hold outdoor activities, ball games, relay races, and traditionally archery events as well.  Why archery?  The story has it that in response to the Hadrianic persecutions of the early 2nd century, students would hide their texts in quivers containing arrows and go off into the forests with their bows to meet their teachers and study Torah surreptitiously.  No telling how many Romans were fooled by this sudden interest in bows and arrows. From the earliest times, the bow, that bow in the sky was seen as a symbol of hope, of God’s promise to spare this world.


More recently, the Kabbalists have linked Lag BaOmer to another second century sage, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.  Bar Yochai is the central figure of the classic mystical text of the Zohar. Traditionalists say he is actually its author, while most modern scholars accept that the work which appeared in the late 13th century was written mainly by Rabbi Moshe deLeon who used Rabbi Shimon as the hero and great teacher of the mystic group whose wanderings and conversations are recorded in the Zohar. Thus it follows in the tradition of the many pseudepigraphic works of ancient times, built around the stories of earlier figures in our tradition.  Regardless, a late tradition marks Lag BaOmer as the day of Rabbi Shimon’s departure from this world to ascend to the Heavenly Court and as such it became a day of celebration, Hilula d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.  On that last day, he revealed many great secrets of the Torah we are told.


Customarily, people go on pilgrimage each year to Meron, in the Galilee, to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon.  Bonfires are lit, and this is a time when many give their three-year-old sons their first haircut, creating peot, the distinctive sidecurls of the ultra-Orthodox.  There is singing and dancing at the tomb and various prayers and rituals mark the day.  I recall from my student days, that one could see bonfires not only in Meron, but all along the hillsides of Israel on the evening of Lag BaOmer. Youth groups would gather around these campfires, roast potatoes, and sing songs.  We tried one year to recreate that kind of event, setting up a campfire on our parking lot in Northampton, MA, roasting potatoes, and singing songs. We even arranged for a barber to come with his barber chairs on the back of a pickup truck and give haircuts to our kids.


It is a very strange observance.  It is not a full holiday, but it has its rituals and customs.  Its full meaning is obscured by the varying traditions and observances.  To me, it seems like a reminder at a time of sorrow and mourning, that mourning can come to an end and that while we continue to remember the past, there is ultimately hope for the future.  As the Psalmist proclaims in a passage we read every morning, “Hafachta mispedi l’machol li, pitachta saki v’ta’azreini simcha.” ‘You have turned my sorrow into dancing.  You have removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may sing to You and not be silent.  Lord my God, forever will I thank You.”


Yes, we remember past sorrows, the great tragedies of Jewish history.  Yet we are still here, centuries later.  We continue to live today in a very difficult and dangerous time, a time of uncertainty and fear, a time of loss and sorrow, victims of vicious hatred, tremendous disappointment in some of those we thought were our friends.  Our prayers continue for our brothers and sisters in Israel as they struggle not only with the enemy in Gaza, but with world opinion manipulated by those who seek our destruction, those who wish us ill.  We are deeply concerned by those who would work for an end to Jewish life here and around the world, this pointless hatred exploited by the enemies of Israel as an opportunity to attack all Jews.  It is not new, we have been here before, but that not lessen our distress.


After meals, we are to recite a series of blessings, Birkat HaMazon, the blessing for the food we have eaten.  The first three blessings are attributed to biblical figures, Moses, Joshua, and Kings David and Solomon.  We thank God for providing food for all.  We praise Him for the gift of our land and its produce.  We pray for the rebuilt city of Jerusalem and its Temple.  To these three biblically ordained blessings, a fourth was added following the Bar Kochba revolt, after the defeat of this great hero, thought to be potentially the Messiah by Rabbi Akiva and others.  This blessing which is called  “HaTov v’haMeitiv,” praises God who is good and does good things. Which benevolent act are we referring to?  After the defeat at Betar, the Romans refused to allow the Jews to bury their dead.  In fact, they massacred thousands of others in vengeance for rebelling against their authority.  Although this was during the heat of the summer, miraculously we’re told, the bodies were preserved until the Romans relented after receiving a large ransom payment and allowed them to be buried.  Even for such a tragic event, marking the final attempt to throw off Roman rule and truly marking the end of Jewish sovereignty until modern times, the rabbis gave thanks to God who through this miracle showed that them in spite of the tragic defeat, that He still loved His people and would ultimately bring redemption to them and to the world.  This hope they embodied in the prayers following every meal and thereby gave hope to our people throughout the centuries that a better time was coming and we must never lose hope.


Lag BaOmer provides us once again with that reminder of God’s Providence and calls on us to look beyond the present moment and have hope and faith that we ultimately will prevail and our enemies will be no more.  May the day of redemption speedily arrive in a world where all can live in peace and harmony.


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