By Rabbi Gil Perl
Lag B’Omer is a holiday whose origin and customs are shrouded in mystery and mysticism. The best known explanation for the day’s festivities stems from the 13th-century, when Rabbi Menachem Meiri told of a Talmudic story regarding the students of the famed Rabbi Akiva.
The Talmud (Yevamot 62b) relates that Rabbi Akiva was so successful a teacher and so dynamic a personality that he amassed 24,000 students. For all that these students possessed in intellectual prowess and spiritual aptitude, however, they lacked empathy and sensitivity toward one another. And for that, the Talmud states, they all met their demise in one concentrated period between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot.
Meiri, writing in the area of northern Spain and southern France known then as Provence, referred to a longstanding tradition that the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students ended on the 33rd day of the Omer, or Lag (which numerically equals 33 in Hebrew) B’Omer. This, according to Meiri and centuries of commentators after him, provides the basis for the celebration that Jews across the globe were marking this week on May 7.
The reasoning seems a bit odd from a purely theological perspective. Certainly, the loss of 24,000 students in one fell swoop constituted a tragedy of enormous proportions and the reasons behind it — a failure of basic morality and interpersonal ethics — deserve to be permanently enshrined in our people’s collective memory.
Likewise, the end of such a plague constitutes reasons for a communal sigh of relief. But celebration? Dancing and singing? Parties and bonfires? Since when does the close of a tragedy warrant a celebratory response?
The answer, perhaps, lies in the continuation of the Talmudic passage cited above. The story does not, in fact, end with the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students. It continues as follows:
The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our masters in the South and taught Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda (bar Illai), Rabbi Yosi, Rabbi Shimon (bar Yohai) and Rabbi Eleazar ben Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time.
In other words, after a brief period of deep depression and anguish, Rabbi Akiva picked himself up — physically and emotionally — and began teaching again. This time, his students were far fewer in number. But these five protégés went on to become scholars of the highest order who made an indelible impact on the course of Jewish learning and Jewish life.
Perhaps Lag B’Omer is not so much about the end of destruction as it is about the potential for rebirth. Perhaps the tradition Meiri referenced is not intended to focus us on the students who died but on the students who emerged from the depths of unspeakable destruction.
Perhaps the story is less about the victims and more about a hero. A hero who reminds us all of the unimaginably deep reservoirs of strength with which God has endowed us, both personally and communally, and how even the most daunting and devastating of life’s moments can be overcome — cause for celebration, indeed.
Rabbi Gil Perl is head of school of Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Merion Station and the chief academic officer of the Kohelet Foundation.