Posts Tagged 'Lag B’Omer'

Model Lesson

According to Jewish Law it is the practice to refrain from getting married between Passover and Shavuot – until Lag B’Omer (Shulchan Aruch 493:1). Lag B’Omer celebrates the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, a verbal counting of each of the 49 days from Passover till Shavuot (Leviticus 23:15-16). It is recorded that this practice serves as a memorial for the students of Rabbi Akiva,  Tanna of the middle of the 2nd  century, who perished during this period of time. Their deaths came to an end (or at least a break) on Lag B’Omer. But, why did the students of Rabbi Akiva die? And why would we mourn their death by refraining from getting married?

We can start to answer these questions by looking at the Gemara in Yevamot. There we learn:

Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbata to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: “All of them died between Passover and Shavuot”.  (Yevamot 62b)

It seems strange that Rabbi Akiva’s students died because they did “not treat each other with respect”. Rabbi Akiva taught that “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) is the great underlying principle in the entire Torah (Torat Kehonim 4:12 and Talmud Yerushalmi, Nedarim 9:4).It would be surprising that even just one student of this great Tanna did not learn such a basic lesson. What is the additional significance of the quantity of students who died?

It might be helpful to learn some more about who Rabbi Akiva was as a teacher. Despite his humble beginnings as a shepherd, Rabbi Akiva became a tremendous scholar. And while he had a tremendous effect on Jewish life, he was not without flaws. We learn in the Gemara that during the 24 years in which he accumulated these 24,000 students he did not see his wife once (Ketubot 62b-63a). There is no doubt that Rabbi Akiva loved his wife Rachel dearly. He gave his wife credit for all of the Torah they learned during his time away from her. When his students first met his wife he told them explicitly that they were all indebted to his wife. And here is the issue. While living apart from his wife for all of those years Rabbi Akiva did not show his students the daily habits of respect. How were his students to learn how to treat each other with respect if Rabbi Akiva did not model this for them?

On Lag B’Omer we should take a moment and try to learn the lesson that evaded Rabbi Akiva’s students. How should we treat each other with respect? It is clearly not enough to just talk about it. If we want to teach respect we need to model it.

It is in light of this that we see the real power of Jewish camp as an educational institution. As the adage goes, “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand.” In school we are told a lot of things, but in camp the staff members model the most important lessons. And on the highest level we are all asked to get involved in creating the community.

– As seem on the Canteen

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Modeling Respect

The Shulchan Aruch (493:1) reports on the practice of not getting married between Passover and Shavuot – until Lag B’Omer, because during this time the students of Rabbi Akiva perished. Their deaths came to an end (or at least a break) on Lag B’Omer. Why did the students of Rabbi Akiva die? And why would we mourn their death by refraining from getting married?

We can start to answer these questions by looking at the Gemara in Yevamot. There  we learn:

Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbata to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir,  Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: “All of them died between Passover and Shavuot”.  (Yevamot 62b)

Rabbi Akiba’s students died because they did not treat each other with respect. It would be surprising to learn that one student of this great tanna of the middle of the 2nd century did not learn such a basic lesson. What is the additional significance of it being 24,000?

Despite his humble beginnings as a shepherd Rabbi Akiba became a tremendous scholar. And while he had a tremendous effect on Jewish life, he was not without flaws. We learn in the Gemara that during the 24 years in which he accumulated these 24,000 students he did not see his wife once (Ketubot 62b-63a). Rabbi Akiva gave his wife credit for all of the Torah they learned in this time. So while he told his students explicitly that they were all indebted to his wife, living apart from his wife for all of those years Rabbi Akiva did not show his student the daily habits of respect. How were his students to learn how to treat each other with respect if Rabbi Akiba did not model this for them?

Today being Lag B’Omer , we should take a moment and reflect on how we should treat each other with respect and how we might teach this lesson to others. Lately there is a lot of conversation as to what is a legal marriage. Many hide their homophobia and bigotry behind their traditional hetero-normative assumptions of marriage of the religious establishment. While they have every right to marginalize people who do not live by their standards within the context of their religion, in a country that claims a division between church and state this should have no bearings on US law. It is for the very reason that marriage is a sacrament that the state should not get involved in  limiting these rights to heterosexual couples.

It is not despite the fact that I am an Orthodox Rabbi, but because of this fact that I think the government should allow same-sex marriage. How are we any different from the students of Rabbi Akiba? How can we in the religious establishment hope to teach people about respect when we do not model it ourselves. Looking no further than the  horrible divorce rate in this country it is clear that we do not model this respect  in hetero-normative marriage. And we surely do not model this by barring two consensual adults who love each other  from enjoying the civil rights of a heterosexual couple.

As religious people, we should welcome this “challenge” of same-sex marriage as an opportunity to define marital commitment in the 21st century. Getting lost in the form of a wedding completely misses the conversation about the content of a marriage. Who better to guide the conversation about commitment?  It is laughable to outsource the definition of a marriage to the state. We clearly do not want to leave this conversation of commitment in the hands of politicians. We want to be the ones crafting the conversation on what makes a life-long commitment work. And in the end we have to realize that we cannot just preach respect, we need to model it.  So now with Lag B’Omer behind us we can all get married.

Mixed Blessing

At the end of Emor, this week’s Torah portion, we read a very disturbing story about the blasphemer (Leviticus 24:10-23). He was the child of an Egyptian father and his mother was of the tribe of Dan. As the story goes, he cursed the name of God. In turn, God instructs Moses to lead him out of the camp and eventually have him killed because of his sin.

At first glance, we as moderns are left dealing with the issue of a child of an intermarriage being mistreated. He was a landless person. He could not return to Egypt, and he had no portion in the land of Israel in the tribe of Dan. Where was his place? Where was the justice? This story seems out of touch with the rest if the Torah. We need to find a place for everyone in our community.

Upon second reading we see that he must have been a special person. To be able to curse the name of God, he must have known the name of God. How did this guy know the name of God?  I would like to suggest that it might be the nature of his being alienated which privileged him to know the name of God. We should not aspire to be landless, but this alienation has been a troupe of our existence. For most of our history, from the time that Avram set out on this project called Judaism until the founding of the State of Israel, we have been living as aliens in the lands of others. The memory of being an outsider to a homeland has made someone an insider to the Jewish people.

We learn in the Gemara that 12,000 Chevrutot of Rabbi Akiva died between Passover and Shavuot because they did not treat each other with respect (Yevamot 62). While the Gemara reports that they died from a horrible plague, many believe that they died in the Bar Kochba revolt. This Sunday will be Lag B’ Omer, which marks the succession of the plague/massacre. For those who choose to say that Rabbi Akiva’s students died in the Bar Kochba revolt, I ask you to pause and realize that they died in the name of Jewish autonomy. In our striving to make a home for ourselves we need to ensure that everyone in our community feels welcome even if they do not have land. The rest of us should reflect on how we need to learn the lesson that Rabbi Akiva’s neglected to learn and treat everyone with respect, especially someone who is of mixed lineage in our community.

In many ways we exist in two communities today. One part is so insular and secure that they have grown out of touch with this essential memory of alienation, while the other is left  trying to reconcile the realities of widespread intermarriage. In welcoming in the children of mixed married families into our community we will help renew our own sense of sacred alienation. In embracing  these so-called “half Jews” the community will become whole again. I am not asking to change halacha, but an attitude of wanting to be inclusive. In so doing, I hope that we can all learn to bless God in new ways.


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