Rabbi Howard Alpert
Lag B’Omer and Parshat Behar
May 23 is Lag B’Omer — the 33rd day of the counting of the omer.
Marking the occasion, bonfires will be lit; weddings will be celebrated; hair and beards left uncut since before Pesach will be trimmed; and movies and concerts ignored since the omer began will be enjoyed.
The day was welcomed the evening of May 22 with the declaration: “Today is three and thirty days, which is four weeks and five days, in the Omer.”
Like the countdown to some great event, this formula is used to count the 50 days between the second day of Passover and the festival of Shavuot. In biblical times, this period marked the time from which the Kohen offered an omer (a measure) of barley in the temple on Pesach until a sacrifice of wheat was brought on Shavuoth, after which the Jews of Israel were permitted to enjoy the fruits of the spring grain harvest.
After the temple was destroyed, counting the days of the omer anticipated the receiving of the Torah on Shavuot. In medieval times, mystics saw in it a commemoration of the life of 2nd-century mystic Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai, who, legend has it, wrote the Zohar while hiding from the Romans in a cave with his son Elazar. Together, they studied Torah and unraveled its secrets while surviving on water and a carob tree with which they were miraculously provided.
For the last 1,000 years or more, the omer period has been known for its mourning practices. For 33 of the 50 days of the omer, Jews in many communities avoid public celebrations, do not go to concerts or movies, put off having their hair cut and practice other mourning customs.
As an explanation, the sages refer to the Talmudic narrative that tells of 12,000 pairs of students of Rabbi Akiva who died one year in the period between Passover and Shavout, “because they did not act respectfully towards one another.” The result of this tragedy, the Talmud says, is that “the world was desolate,” on which Rashi comments “the world was desolate because Torah was forgotten.”
Rashi’s comment goes to the core of our mission as Jews.
Abraham and Sarah were promised that we, their children, would be a source of blessing for the world. Two hundred and fifteen yeas after that promise was made, our forebears received the gift that is the vehicle for that blessing: The Torah whose purpose is to promote the values that will guide human society in their task of making the world more perfect.
Like Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai and his son, our blessing for the world is not from our worldly success, but from our success in understanding and applying the lessons of Torah. Times in which Torah study flourishes and Torah values abound portend well for society and are cause for celebration. Times in which the study and practice of Torah is diminished by the destruction of Jewish communities bring desolation to the world and are cause for mourning.
The Jewish calendar has other days of mourning. We fast on Tisha B’Av, avoid meat and wine during the “Nine Days” leading up Tisha B’Av and remember Yom Hashoah to grieve over calamities that have befallen us and to mourn their cost in life and property.
The omer is different. During the omer we remind ourselves that these tragedies have a cost beyond human suffering with implications for our national mission: the diminution of the study of Torah and the loss of Torah values throughout the world. For 33 days, the world was desolate and we mourn. On the 33rd day, the cause of the desolation was ended and we celebrate.
The idea that the mission and aspirations of the Jewish people are deeper than physical well-being and material success is supported by the Torah’s introduction of the sabbatical year found in this week’s parsha.
There we read, “When you arrive in the land that I give to you, you will have the land observe a Sabbath for God.” Our rabbis ask why the sabbatical year is referred to as a Sabbath “for God.” Some answer that it is to remind us that even though it is we who work the land, it belongs to God, not to us. We are entrusted with it and our other material goods only to use them to serve God’s will.
Others take this thought further.
For six years we work the land, produce our food, buy and sell property and build material things out of necessity. We serve God’s purpose by doing what is needed to sustain the physical world that God created.
In the seventh year we depend upon God to sustain his world and dedicate ourselves “for God” by engaging in studying his Torah and disseminating its lessons throughout the world. The study and application of Torah is presented as the higher good.
We are blessed to live in an era in which Torah study flourishes. Seventy-five years after the Shoah, the children of Abraham and Sarah are once again the source of blessing for the world. That is worth celebrating!
Rabbi Howard Alpert is immediate past co-president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia and a retired Hillel rabbi. The board is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.