A HOMILY FOR LAG BaOMER
This coming Monday, at sunset, the 33rd day of counting the Omer will be upon us. Up until this point, beginning with the second night of Passover, the Jewish people have been in a state of semi-mourning, restricting ourselves and consciously meditating upon the needs of the spirit in contrast to the desires of our physical being. The ancient superstition had us modify our behavior so that the weather would cooperate while the Spring barley grew; a good harvest depended on Winter rains holding off but the Summer heat also staying away. From the ‘narrow place’ our Passover remembers us leaving, we find ourselves in a different narrow place, an agricultural fairway that we pray our farmers find themselves in, deviating not too far to one side or the other. Those observing the Omer will not cut their hair or shave their beards throughout this period as a sign of not caring as much about their physical appearance as their spiritual fitness.
These restrictions are lifted on the 33rd day of the Omer, called Lag BaOmer. “Lag” is the Hebrew acronym for the number 33. It also sounds Scottish to me. And Scotland is known for many things, among them, Scots Whisky. Which is made from Malted Barley.
Barley! See how it is all connected! Now, on the 33rd day of this counting towards the harvest, of counting towards the pilgrimage holiday of Shavu’ot, we enjoy a day of celebration and respite from stricture. It is a night of bonfires and celebrations celebrated unto this day around the Jewish world, particularly in Israel, where thousands typically gather at Har Meron, the burial site of Shimon Bar Yochai, the spiritual father of Jewish Mysticism, legendary mind behind the Zohar, the central work of Medieval Kabbalah, and one of the only students of Rabbi Akiva to survive the great plague that killed 24,000 of his colleagues. You see, not only is Lag BaOmer believed to be Shimon Bar Yochai’s yahrzeit, and the day of his greatest revelation of Kabbalistic secrets to his students, but it is also the day that that the plague was lifted from the students of Akiva.
We will commemorate this Lag BaOmer in a very different world this year. And ironically, we will celebrate it in a way that makes it closer to the original Lag BaOmer, but with little reasonable expectation that the plague that has killed scores of thousands more than Akiva’s will be lifted from us, though we pray it might be so.
Nevertheless, we have every reason to celebrate, not the least of which is the gift that Akiva and his student Shimon, and his students, and theirs have handed off to us. The ever-broadening tapestry of Jewish thought: practical, legal, mystical, philosophical, unto which we weave our own threads.
As we do so, we would do well, or rather, I suggest we must know the warp and woof that we build upon. We must look at the tapestry as it is and how it developed. We have a responsibility to the integrity of the work to know the story we are charged with continuing. To Listen to our history. It is not a mistake that the central statement of our faith begins with “Sh’ma!” “Listen!”
And so it is I suggest we listen to the reasons given for the plague that struck down Akiva’s students — that calamity that threatened the legacy of the greatest among us in his days. That plague, that mortal threat arose, we are taught, because they did not treat each other with respect.
When we engage in anti-intellectualism and deny facts, empirical science, and reason because we find them inconvenient to our worldview, we dishonor the spirit of learning and discipline that our ancestors risked and lost their lives for. We do not show them, their sacrifices, or their legacy respect and we bring the plague upon us.
When we speak of people with whom we disagree as though they were less ‘American’ or ‘Jewish’ or ‘Christian’, or whatever title you would claim yourself and deny another; when we suggest that they are less deserving of life, liberty and opportunity, we bring the plague upon us.
When we refuse to wear a mask in public, we are willing to infect others, it demonstrates arrogance, ignorance or both, and we literally bring the plague upon us.
We are in a time of plague. As we pause the pause on celebrating on this Lag B’omer, let us count our blessings and count each other among them. We will need to work together to rebuild no less than those few that survived Akiva’s plague had to rebuild. And we would do well to remember that one of those few, Shimon Bar Yochai, was able to rise from those ashes like a Phoenix. May we take strength from this. And may God bless our efforts.