Thursday, May 7, 2020

New Meanings in Old Stories

Lag B’Omer is a mysterious holiday. It occurs this coming Tuesday. Its meaning, and origins, are curious. Its name is clear enough. It is the thirty-third day of the Omer. The Omer is the period in which we count seven weeks from Passover to Shavuot. The Torah relates: “And from the day on which you bring the sheaf (omer) of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks.” (Leviticus 23)

The rabbis make clear what the Torah leaves obscure. We count the days from Passover to Shavuot. We connect these two ancient agricultural festivals when our ancestors moved from Passover’s harvest of barley to Shavuot’s of wheat. We bind the freedom celebrated on Passover with the Torah given on Shavuot. Freedom must be bound to commitment.

Long ago, our people worried about the impending harvest and asked, “Would the wheat crop be bountiful?” This led to the Omer gaining semi-mourning status in which wedding celebrations, for example, are forbidden. These restrictions are lifted on Lag B’Omer.

The rabbis again elaborate. (Those rabbis can really tell some stories.) In the days of Rabbi Akiva a plague decimated his followers, killing thousands of the famed rabbi’s students. But then, on Lag B’Omer, the plague mysteriously ebbed. The sick recovered and regained their strength. People left their homes. They congregated once again in large groups. (That would be my rabbinic tale. I pray. May it be so! May it come to pass in our own day!) And thus, Lag B’Omer became a day of celebration in which these prohibitions are lifted.

The rabbis continue spinning their tales. Lag B’Omer, they teach, is the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, a contemporary of Akiva, who was spared the plague and even the destruction that the Romans meted out after the failed Bar Kokhba rebellion. It is possible that the plague was a rabbinic euphemism for this rebellion and the destruction that followed.

According to tradition, Shimon bar Yohai, is the author of the Zohar, the central text of Jewish mysticism. On Lag B’Omer people flock to his grave. They exclaim that he is a light that continues to illuminate our paths. They dance around giant bonfires. They cut children’s hair for the first time because this too is forbidden during the Omer.

But Rabbi Shimon was a strange, and mercurial, figure. Because he defied the Romans, teaching Torah, even after they mercilessly defeated the Jews, he was sentenced to death. He, and his son, managed to escape and hide in a cave. And there they hid, sustained by a miraculous carob tree and well, for twelve years. They continued their study of Torah while in hiding. Sustained only by water and carobs, he and his son studied day and night.

When Shimon and his son Elazar finally emerged from the cave, he became enraged that people were going about their business and not devoting themselves to studying Torah. How could they be doing mundane things like plowing and sowing? The Talmud reports: “Every place that Rabbi Shimon and his son Rabbi Elazar directed their eyes was immediately burned.” God then chastised them, “Did you emerge from the cave in order to destroy My world? Return to your cave.” And so, they returned to the cave for another year. This time Rabbi Shimon emerged a changed man. “Everywhere that Rabbi Elazar would strike, Rabbi Shimon would heal.” (Babylonia Talmud, Shabbat 33b)

“What a bizarre story!” I exclaim every year when I reread it around this holiday of Lag B’Omer. And yet this year it is taking on new meaning. Our tradition’s stories and texts appear different in the shadow of Covid-19. That is of course one of the wonders of tradition. If we hold on to its tales long enough, they speak to us in new, and different, ways. Perhaps they lead us out of our current despair. And so, while I do not very much like carobs, my home has become my cave. And your home has become your cave. There we are banished to its comforts. I am trapped within its walls, and although more often than not feasting on home cooked meals, Shimon’s fears, and even at times his scorn, of the outside world have become my own.

Perhaps that person, standing next to me in the vegetable aisle, is a danger to me.

Perhaps I could inadvertently, and unknowingly, infect someone.

The Talmud warns. The retreat to the inner world offers a tempting allure. It can make us hate what lies outside our doors. I remind myself. I did not choose to retreat. I do so for the sake of others. This cave is likewise imposed.

And I must too stay long enough to bring healing.

For now, I hold on to the stories. I hold on to the legends. I pour over their words. The ancient tradition offers new meaning and unexpected sustenance.

The light will one day emerge.

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