Lag Ba’Omer 5781 Rabbi Berel Wein
This semi-holiday is utterly unique in the calendar of the Jewish people because it commemorates a passive event.
The dark and sorrowful days of the counting of the Omer are interrupted suddenly by the day of commemoration that marks an abrupt ending to this sadness. According to the Talmud, it was during this period that tens of thousands of the students and disciples of the great Rabbi Akiva passed away. It was on the 33rd day of the count of the Omer when suddenly were no more deaths.
The majority opinion within Jewish tradition is that these deaths were caused by a plague, and, in the words of the Talmud, the plague itself had its origins in the fact that these scholars were found wanting in their mutual respect one for another.
There is another source in Jewish tradition that these deaths were attributable to the great revolution at the time by Simon bar Kochba. That revolution began with great promise, and even the great Rabbi Akiva supported it and gave it a messianic quality. However, after four long bitter years of struggle, including two years of independence during which coins were struck, the Romans put down the rebellion, with extreme cruelty, destroyed any remnants of the Temple in Jerusalem, and sent the Jewish people into their long exile throughout the nations of the world.
All traditions do agree, though. that on the 33rd day of the count of the Omer these disciples of Rabbi Akiva did stop dying. It is interesting that we have a semi-holiday, not honouring a day of achievement or victory, but, rather, because somehow the evil decree allowed by heaven to end so many lives, such as it was, would not continue.
Rabbi Akiva may have lost 24,000 of his students during this period, but he had five outstanding students that remained alive. They were the ones that eventually guaranteed the survival of the Jewish people through the ages and challenges. In effect, we may say that Lag Ba’Omer commemorates the fact that the surviving remnants of the destruction of the second Commonwealth became the foundation and basis for all the eternal Jewish life in the future.
It is difficult to commemorate a negative. All the holidays of the Jewish people that the Torah instructed us to commemorate and celebrate were to mark positive achievements in Jewish history – the Exodus from Egypt, the Revelation and acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai (also the beginning of the season of offerings of new fruit brought to the Temple), and to mark the conclusion of the bountiful harvest season in the fall. Hanukkah commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks and the rededication of the Temple. Purim marks the triumph of Mordechai and Esther over the evil Haman and the justified retribution that the Jews exacted from their enemies in the Persian Empire. These are all positive events.
Lag Ba’Omer commemorates a negative event, a passive occurrence, if you will, that a plague abated and that death the longer stalked the halls of the students of Rabbi Akiva. In this respect, therefore, this semi-holiday is utterly unique in the calendar of the Jewish people.
We are taught a significant lesson here. It is not only the achievement of victory and success that is to be celebrated amongst us. In the absence of defeat, it is the continuation of ordinary life and events, the regular stuff that fills most of our lives with seemingly inconsequential occurrences, that are also to be celebrated and appreciated.
People take their health for granted until it is taken away, even in a small dose. The same thing is true for family, material possessions and even national existence and success. We should rejoice in the absence of problems, and not necessarily await miraculous and unexpected solutions to problems. This is an important lesson that should be preserved in Jewish life, not only during this period of the counting of the Omer, but also throughout the year, and, in fact, throughout the years of our lifespan as well.
And this is also one of the great lessons of the abatement of the Corona pandemic here in Israel. On the surface it is a negative achievement – no more pandemic – but it is a lesson for all of us to appreciate what we once called normal life and usual human existence.