It’s Lag Ba-Omer…Now What?

Today is Lag Ba-Omer, to which some might say “now what?” Is this a Jewish observance that is fundamental to Jewish identity? Not especially. Are there any special foods to eat? Not really. Are there any special prayers to say, or readings to be chanted from the Torah? No. Are there any special customs? Yes, but they’re not well known or widely practiced. So what exactly is Lag Ba-Omer and what meaning does it hold for us?

To understand Lag Ba-Omer, it’s necessary to dissect its name. “Lag” is a Hebrew acronym that represents the number 33 and refers to the 33rd day of the Omer (see last week’s post to understand the counting of the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot). Simply put, today is the 33rd day of the Omer. According to Jewish tradition, the first 32 days of the Omer period are considered a time of semi-mourning. Observant Jews don’t hold festive events and some don’t cut their hair. This practice is based on a somewhat vague idea found in the Talmud that the disciples of Rabbi Akiva treated one another with disrespect and therefore suffered from a plague. The disciples repented and the plague subsided on the 33rd day of the Omer, so it became an occasion for celebration.

It’s also possible that the legend of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples dying from a plague developed from a historical event, namely the failed Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans in the year 135 CE when thousands of Jewish soldiers were killed. That would account for the old custom of holding picnics and playing games with bows and arrows on Lag Ba-Omer.

An entirely different explanation of the origin of Lag Ba-Omer concerns Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, the legendary author of the Zohar, the foundational text of Jewish mysticism. Francine Klagsbrun, author and commentator, writes:

“Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, who survived the Bar Kokhba revolt, is said to have died on Lag Ba-Omer. Rabbi Simeon continued to defy the Roman rulers even after Bar Kokhba’s defeat, and was forced to flee for his life and spend years in solitary hiding. Legend places him and his son Eleazar in a cave for 12 years, where a miraculous well and carob tree sustained them while they spent their days studying and praying. When they finally emerged, Simeon denigrated all practical occupations, insisting that people engage only in the study of Torah. For this God confined the two to their cave for another year, accusing Simeon of destroying the world with his rigid asceticism.”

To this day, Jews visit the tomb of Simeon bar Yohai in the town of Meron in the Galilee where they pray, sing, and play games. Putting aside that this Kabbalistic rabbi is revered, the legend reminds us that Torah study, while virtuous, must be balanced with active engagement with the world. Good deeds and active participation in efforts to make our society a better place are fundamental to Jewish life.

So there you have two worthwhile messages from a little known, minor holiday on the Jewish calendar. People owe one another proper treatment and respectful language, and study must be balanced with meaningful action. Whether you spend the day at a picnic, busy at work or at home with family members, I hope that Lag Ba-Omer will have some meaning for you.

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It Counts!

 

“And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering – the day after the Sabbath – you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week – fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord. 

(Leviticus 23:15-16)

 This verse from the Torah portion we read this week- Emor- outlines the practice of counting the days from Passover to the next festival, called Shavuot (meaning “weeks” and referring to the exactly seven weeks between the two holidays). Actually, the Torah doesn’t explicitly mention that the festival celebrated seven weeks after Passover is called “Shavuot.” Instead, it is a called “Chag Ha-Katzir” (the harvest festival) and “Chag Ha-Bikurim” (the festival of the first fruits). How it came to be called Shavuot, and associated with God’s revelation at Mt. Sinai and the Ten Commandments, is another story. But the idea of counting 49 days/7 weeks from Passover to Shavuot is unmistakably found in the Torah and provides some insight into our own lives.

The counting of the 49 days/7 weeks is itself a Jewish ritual known as “counting the omer” (the term “omer” comes from the grain offering mentioned in the verse above). Observant Jews count scrupulously, making an effort not to miss even one day of the sequence, since the mitzvah is to count all the days from the first to the last. The mitzvah is performed after dark beginning with the night of the second Seder and ending on the night before Shavuot. It is customary not to announce the number of the next day in the sequence until actually performing the ritual, since doing so is considered to “pre-empt” the counting. A blessing is recited and then the day of the Omer sequence is recited according to a liturgical formula. Of course, there are smartphone apps that can be downloaded for free that remind someone what day is to be counted, along with meditations and prayers to be recited.

What insight can we gain from counting the days from Passover to Shavuot? Here are three takeaways:

  1. Each day matters. That each day of our lives matters, that each new day represents the potential for each of us to do something good and helpful, to experience some measure of growth, to find some measure of fulfillment and joy, is conventional wisdom. But it’s nice to have a period of time specifically focused on the idea that each day counts.
  2. Counting emphasizes responsibility. Passover is about redemption from oppression and Shavuot is about agreeing to be governed by communal laws and norms. The freedom won on Passover finds its greatest fulfillment when we express our ultimate purpose and power as human beings to change the world for the better. As a people, we embrace that challenge collectively and affirm our purpose on Shavuot. Counting the days from Passover to Shavuot underscores that freedom is valuable only if we use it constructively.
  3. Counting emphasizes personal growth. As we note that each day matters, we can also consider how we might grow with each new day. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that the Kabbalists saw the counting of the omer as an opportunity to cleanse the soul:

“The forty-nine days, connecting the exodus from Egypt with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, are a time of preparation and growth – of leaving a world of slavery and getting ready to enter a world of personal, social and spiritual responsibility. The Jewish mystics attached special significance to this period of the year as one in which the various facets of the soul were cleansed, one by one.”

As each day of the omer is counted, ask yourself how you can and wish to grow personally, socially, spiritually. What aspects of your life need attention and change? Pick one area of your life on which to concentrate each week of the seven weeks of counting. Meditate on that part of your life, or start a journal that express your feelings and hopes. In that way the counting of the omer can be transformed from an obscure and obsolete ritual to one that is relevant and powerful.

By the way, today is the 26th day of the Omer, which is three weeks and five days into the counting!

 

 

What Would You Do If You Encountered Hate?

“He who can restrain the members of his household from committing a sin but does not will be held responsible for his household. If he can restrain the people of his city, he will be held responsible for the people of his city. If he can restrain the whole world – all of it – he will be held responsible for the whole world, all of it.” (Talmud Shabbat 54b)

It’s simple. Because we live in a community, because we share life with others, we each bear a responsibility for making our community a better place, a place of goodness, a place where the dignity of all people is upheld and honored, a place that is free from intolerance and hatred. The Talmud passage quoted above says even more than that. It says that if we can stop an act of evil, if we can do something to thwart an act that is morally wrong, if we can prevent someone from expressing hatred or intolerance, and we don’t act, then we are responsible for the consequences of that evil.

The Talmudic passage above is a comment on a verse in this week’s Torah portion:

“You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. You shall surely reprove your fellow but incur no guilt because of him.” (Leviticus 19:17)

The Torah instructs us to “reprove our fellow,” to correct bad behavior when we see it. Some of the commentaries on the verse say that we must do this under all circumstances, even if we find it uncomfortable or awkward or even if we are risking making the other person feel bad or embarrassed. Other commentaries suggest that the second part of the verse— ‘incur no guilt because of him’—teaches us that when rebuking someone for an error they committed we must uphold their dignity and prevent them (not the one doing the rebuking) from feeling guilty. Still others suggest that we cannot meaningfully rebuke someone with whom we are not friendly. A rebuke that is the product of love is more effective.

Of course, it requires judgement to know when, and if, to rebuke someone or correct their behavior. Certainly the Torah isn’t calling on us to rebuke someone for doing something we don’t happen to like or find personally annoying. The verse instead seems to focus on breaches of proper behavior between people, such as insults and expressions of disrespect, ethical lapses, and moral infractions that offend society’s values.

The Torah’s urging to reprove someone who is doing something wrong, and the Talmud’s statement that if we don’t do something about bad behavior then we are responsible for its consequences, were put to the test in our community in recent days. Two children from South Orange Middle School posted on Instagram, an online social media site, a collage of hateful images– a swastika surrounded by Stars of David, symbols of the Soviet Union, raised middle fingers and a photo of the collapse of the World Trade Center, set against a background of the rainbow flag, as well as two students standing on a porch, looking into the distance, with a caption that said “views from the schwitz,” likely a reference to Auschwitz. What was perhaps most disturbing about this incident was the fact that the posts received 90 “likes,” which could be interpreted as anything from an endorsement of the message to a desire to conform to whatever a group is doing even if the group is doing something offensive or wrong.

To be clear, the school administration quickly responded to the incident by meeting with the children and their families. As I wrote to you a couple of days ago, a meeting attended by the Rabbis of South Orange and other clergy, a representative of the New Jersey chapter of the ADL, Principal Irby and school officials, district officials and social workers, was also held this week to discuss how our community should respond to such hateful gestures. What emerged from the meeting was that, while there were some threads of anti-Semitism in the posts and other expressions made offline to Jewish children, the boys who posted and the families they come from are certainly not hardcore anti-Semites or White Supremacists.

Of greater concern is that almost nobody was willing to confront the boys who posted hateful messages online. Students were not willing to reject the expression of hate and intolerance. They could have posted comments of opposition online or could have spoken out against what they read on Instagram. Perhaps that didn’t happen because children are often more concerned about fitting in and social acceptance. Even some parents wanted their children to stay out of the fray for fear they would be caught up in something ugly. We live in a community that prides itself in its diversity, tolerance and harmony. But there is some reason to believe that we still have problems to solve and divisions to overcome.

It takes courage to stand up, sometimes alone, against hate and intolerance. But the Talmud and our tradition teaches us that the fate of our community, and our world, may rest on our willingness to “rebuke our fellow,” to stand up even if we feel it’s unpopular or awkward to do so, for what is right and true.

A Statement From Rabbis Cooper, Cohen, and Olitzky

The following letter was written in collaboration with all three South Orange Rabbis and sent to our congregations simultaneously because we feel strongly about the message.

We are blessed to live in a diverse community. It is this diversity that makes South Orange-Maplewood an attractive place to live, worship and raise families. At the same time, diversity can, at times, be challenging. That has been the case over the last days. As many of you know, and as has been reported in a number of local media outlets, there have been a number of bias issues that have taken place at South Orange Middle School in recent weeks. These included hate images posted to social media, student-to-student bias comments in the halls, and lunchroom conversation that has no place in our community. This is, of course, unacceptable and requires response. Such response must, however, be serious in intent, measured in its approach, and focus on the present challenges AND the future healing that will ensure our towns remain the open, embracing communities that drew us here in the first place. It is in this context that we are taking the unprecedented step of writing to each of our congregations but doing so in a single document.

Upon hearing of this late last week the three of us immediately met to discuss how we, as the rabbis of the three South Orange synagogues, might best respond. As a result of that meeting,  late yesterday afternoon we met with members of the administration of the school district, including Dr. John J. Ramos, Sr., Superintendent of Schools, Kevin Walson, Assistant Superintendent of Administration, Lynn A. Irby, Principal of SOMS, as well as assistant principals, district social workers, and school guidance counselors. Present at the meeting as well were representatives from the New Jersey office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the local Community Coalition on Race. We appreciate Principal Irby’s swift response to organizing this meeting.

It was a good meeting and the first of what we expect will be a series of on-going meetings and learning opportunities. We left the meeting confident of a number of things. First, it is clear there are serious issues that need to be addressed, but the well-being of our community remains strong.  Second, the school has and will continue to address the specific events and those involved in them. Equally important however is the fact that the school administration understands the need to address issues of bias on all levels in a positive, ongoing manner and use this as a learning opportunity for the community-at-large. We emerged confident that they will do just that. We also appreciated the administration’s offer to partner with us to aid in this effort.

We commend those in the community and in our schools who saw bias and took a stand against it. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that “we are not all guilty, but we are all responsible.” We appreciate the administration’s commitment to cultivating a community of “upstanders,” to initiating anti-bias training for staff, to building peer leadership training opportunities for our children, and to planning parent workshops and conversations on bias. We look forward to working together in teaching our children and ensuring that our community continues to be a blessing.

In friendship,

RABBI MARK COOPER
RABBI DAN COHEN
RABBI JESSE OLITZKY

What Do You Want in a Leader?

A presidential campaign always focuses our attention on the qualities we seek in our leaders. While we tend to idealize our leaders, scrutinize their behavior and exaggerate their faults and virtues, the race for president can also trigger thoughtful dialogue about what personal traits and skills we seek in the people who lead us.

Insights into what we might seek in our leaders can also be gleaned from the Torah, including this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot. Spanning Chapters 16-18 of the Book of Leviticus, the parasha includes a detailed description of how Yom Kippur was observed centuries ago in Biblical days. In that context, we read this verse:

“Aaron is to offer his own bull of purification offering, to make expiation for himself and for his household.” (Leviticus 16:6)

 As with most Torah verses, this one also invites commentary and explanation. For example, if Aaron is the religious leader of the people and is charged with officiating at a ceremony that appeals to God for forgiveness for the nation, why must he first “make expiation for himself and his household?” Why not simply enact the required sacrificial rituals and recite the appropriate prayers? Why must the first round of sacrifices be focused specifically on Aaron personally and on his household?

A compelling answer could be that being an effective leader requires a great deal of introspection. Before Aaron can ask for forgiveness on behalf of his people, he must first examine his own behavior and come to terms with his own faults. Consider this commentary:

“Before we can think about fixing the world, we need to fix ourselves and our immediate surroundings. A single positive action can have the effect of improving ourselves, our families, and the nation. Finding ways to improve ourselves has a cumulative effect far greater than the improvements themselves.” (Rabbi Shlomo Ressler, modern American Rabbi)

Ressler suggests that when leaders are mindful of their own behavior and take responsibility for their faults and shortcomings, they grow in their impact on others, including the communities they lead.

A commentary in the Etz Hayim Humash, quoting a midrash, suggests that the phrase “for himself and his household” should be interpreted to mean that the Kohen Gadol must be married. Why? Because the Kohen couldn’t possibly bear the hopes and dreams of his community unless he has personal experience caring for the hopes and dreams of another person. We must acknowledge that in this case, the midrash is out of touch with the social sensibilities of our own day. One need not be married, or even in an intimate relationship with another person, to have experience in caring for others. We all know plenty of people who are caring and compassionate without being married or in a relationship (and Catholics would certainly disagree that their priests must be married in order to be capable of guiding their flock). But the idea that one must be empathetic and understanding of the needs of others on a personal level before representing a community in seeking forgiveness is a compelling one.

 As we contemplate what we want from our leaders, perhaps we should make compassion, empathy and the inclination to care about others a high priority. That is apparently what was required from Aaron as a pre-requisite for addressing the needs of his nation.