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Lag B'Omer and History's Lessons

We find ourselves in the midst of the Omer, the period when we count seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot. The custom originated in biblical times when we counted from Passover’s wheat harvest until Shavuot’s barley harvest. An omer is a sheaf of grain. During this time semi-mourning practices are observed, namely no weddings are celebrated.

The explanations for this are various and somewhat mysterious. I have often thought that it was most likely because there was worry about the upcoming harvest. Others suggest that during rabbinic times a plague afflicted the disciples of Rabbi Akiva. According to some accounts 24,000 students died.

Miraculously on the 33rd day of the Omer the plague lifted. Today is in fact the 33rd day called Lag B’Omer. On this day the mourning practices are lifted. People celebrate and gather around bonfires. We are no longer downcast. Our worry disappears.

The Omer serves to connect the freedom celebrated on Passover with the giving of Torah on Mount Sinai. The Jewish tradition’s claim is obvious. Freedom is meaningless if it is not wed to something greater, to something larger than itself. Passover is not about the freedom to get to do whatever we want. It is about freely choosing Torah.

That is why the tradition stubbornly insists on counting the Omer. We count from freedom to revelation. We march from Egypt to Sinai. Our history is about the journey from this holiday to the next. Our story is reenacted during the Omer.

The rabbis wonder why the plague was so severe. In typical fashion they see its devastation as a critique of their behavior. They see our remembrance of this tragedy as an opportunity to turn inward. And what was the sin that caused the plague? It was that the rabbis and their disciples failed to act respectfully towards each other.

Although such historical claims appear questionable the lesson remains instructive. We are again plagued by the failure to act respectfully towards each other. Our leaders scream at one another. Our politicians call each other names.

Again and again I am reminded that the counting of the Omer offers important lessons for today. We best number our days with the meaning Torah provides.