Posts Tagged 'Lag B’Omer'

Being Enough: Rashbi, Lag B’Omer, and Covid

According to tradition Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, marks the death of the Rashbi (Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai). For this reason thousands go to Har Meron every year to commemorate his yahrzeit. Sadly last night, after what seems to be a collapse of a ramp and a stampede of people, over one hundred people were injured and at least 45 died at Har Meron. Even before this horrible tragedy I have been thinking about the Rashbi and this moment in history. The iconic story of the Rashbi and his son in the Talmud is a poignant frame to help us reflect on our protracted period of social distancing due to Covid and the prospects of emergence from isolation . (Shabbat 33b-34a)

At the start of this story, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is debating the merits of the Roman Empire with Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yose. When the Rashbi’s harsh critique of Rome gets reported to the authorities, he is condemned to death. He goes on the lamb with his son Rabbi Elazar. At first, they hide in the Beit Midrash, but then they find shelter in a miraculous cave with a carob tree and brook. With their physical needs of safety and nourishment taken care of, the Rashbi and and his son spend the next 12 years immersed in prayer and study. After 12 years in isolation, Elijah comes to tell them that the emperor died and it is safe to leave the cave.

As we contemplate, what life might look like after Covid, the story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Elazar needs a closer analysis. The story continues:

They emerged from the cave, and saw people who were plowing and sowing. Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai said: These people abandon eternal life of Torah study and engage in temporal life for their own sustenance. The Gemara relates that every place that Rabbi Shimon and his son Rabbi Elazar directed their eyes was immediately burned. A Divine Voice emerged and said to them: Did you emerge from the cave in order to destroy My world? Return to your cave. They again went and sat there for twelve months. They said: The judgment of the wicked in Gehenna lasts for twelve months. Surely their sin was atoned in that time. A Divine Voice emerged and said to them: Emerge from your cave. They emerged. Everywhere that Rabbi Elazar would strike, Rabbi Shimon would heal. Rabbi Shimon said to Rabbi Elazar: My son, you and I suffice for the entire world, as the two of us are engaged in the proper study of Torah.( Shabbat 33b)

For the Rashbi and his son, after spending 12 years in isolation the transition to society was not easy. It is hard to imagine that our reemergence after more than 12 months will go any smoother. Similar to the Rashbi and his son, as we come out of our caves we all have to reconcile the divergence of practices around Covid. Do we all mask or gather? We will not be keep the same standards. Do we understand that the process will be iterative? Will be get stuck being judgmental? Will we burn up our relationships as we reemerge?

What is our role with our children or students? We will both want to act out. As adults we need to give them limits. We also need to help them fail as they mediate this experience of reemergence. This story helps us communicate that this is not new. We will need to rethink how we discipline out children. We also need to understand that “time-outs” might not be so effective.

Their story of reemergence continues:

As the sun was setting on Shabbat eve, they saw an elderly man who was holding two bundles of myrtle branches and running at twilight. They said to him: Why do you have these? He said to them: In honor of Shabbat. They said to him: And let one suffice. He answered them: One is corresponding to: “Remember the Shabbat day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8), and one is corresponding to: “Protect the Shabbat day, to keep it holy” (Deuteronomy 5:12). Rabbi Shimon said to his son: See how beloved the mitzvot are to Israel. Their minds were put at ease and they were no longer as upset that people were not engaged in Torah study..  (Shabbat 33b)

What about this man’s behavior that placates them? In a simple way he was able to wed together the life of learning (in the cave) and the real world ( plowing and sowing). The old man was able to show his understanding of the two versions of the commandment of Shabbat in a embodied practice. On a deeper level he was able to help the Rashbi and his son reemerge from society. What did they want to remember and protect from their life in the cave and their lives in the real world?

Covid has been and continues to be horrible. Many have died. In turn this has left so many to mourn them. Still more have been hurt physically, emotionally, and economically by this plague. For almost all of us social distancing measures have been difficult if not just annoying.

And for some of us, this time in isolation has itself been a blessing if not a miracle. Yes, balancing work and the kids has been challenging, but it has not been all bad. While we might feel guilty saying it, we might have enjoyed our time in the cave with our family/pod. Similarly, I might complain about the monotony of carobs for dinner again, but I love the time I save in not worrying about my wardrobe or commuting.

Focusing on what is worth remembering and protecting allows us to express the wisdom of the Rashbi. We have and are enough. We maintain an isolation because we have shame that we are not enough. Brené Brown teaches that a pervasive sense of shame makes many of us—particularly in America—feel unworthy of human connection. Why do we experience this shame? Because in this perfectionistic culture, most of us believe we’re “not good enough…not thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, smart enough, promoted enough” to be worthy of love. So we can’t afford to let our guard down, become vulnerable, because letting others see us as we really are would mean we’d be rejected out of hand. Better to avoid emotional risk, avoid vulnerability, and numb ourselves to any pain we can’t escape, even if we ran away to a magical cave. 

We will only by happy with our re-emergence when have a renewed sense that we are enough.

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

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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