April 30, 2021
Embracing and Savoring the Pleasures of Simple
Dear Holy Friends,
I hope this correspondence finds you in good health and starting to enjoy the improving weather (although there may be a major windstorm today).
As I share this reflection, Jews in Israel and around the world are celebrating Lag B’Omer, the thirty-third day of the counting of the Omer (and, my grandmother’s wedding anniversary; although most Jews around the world are not aware of her wedding nuptials in 1915 in the town of Mulch in White Russia). I am happy to share some thoughts regarding the day based on the teachings of my colleague and friend, Rabbi Josh Cahan.
Lag B’Omer is an odd moment on the calendar. It isn’t really a holiday — it has no special rituals or rules — and it is defined totally in terms of another, larger process, the counting of the Omer from Pesach to Shavuot. Even more mystifying is the association that has grown up over time with the rabbinic legend of a plague that struck the students of Rabbi Akiva. If there was truly such a devastating plague, one might imagine it making a more significant imprint on our collective memory than this later association with the Omer and this day of pause in the middle.
Nonetheless, this year I find the Rabbi Akiva story newly compelling, at least as a metaphor for this moment in our own year of plague. The legend about Rabbi Akiva is not, in fact, about the students. It is part of a series of stories through which the rabbis try to illustrate the extreme lengths to which Rabbi Akiva went to ensure that Torah survived a period of harsh persecutions following the Bar Kokhba revolt. He taught, lost everything he’d built, then got up and started over undaunted. He kept teaching despite risking and ultimately giving his life to ensure that his Torah would outlive him and outlast those dark times.
So, Lag B’Omer, in this framing, is a day not of celebrating some joyous event or salvation, but the intense relief of emerging, at long last, from a time of darkness and loss. Doing this feels tricky and weighted. How do I embrace the new and look forward without being dismissive of the terrible price our plague exacted, especially since, speaking personally, I know that so many people bore far more of the brunt of it than I. It feels almost too easy to slide right back into life as it was and forget how much has been lost or forever changed for so many.
Yet, of course, dwelling in the past cannot in itself be the answer. Rabbi Akiva and Lag B’Omer offer a kind of path forward. They need to take a moment to celebrate this reprieve, this return to normal, this gift of a chance to start over. But ultimately, they remain focused on their mission, preserving the tradition of Torah and being inspired by that Torah to keep working toward a more ideal world. This is our moment.
As more and more of us are vaccinated and emerge from isolation, we need to embrace and savor the pleasures of the simple things, the fresh air and human contact we’ve missed for so long. We need to restore our battered spirits. And hopefully, that enjoyment will be the first step in returning to our mission, in taking in the lessons of this year of hardship and getting back to the work of building the world we want our children to inherit.
Happy Lag B’Omer and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Eric L. Wasser, EdD