Leaving Yesterday Behind in Search of Tomorrow

Lag BaOmer (the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer) would be at the top of my list of little-known Jewish holidays. When I refer to holidays like Chanukah or Yom Kippur, people frequently understand the reference. When I mention the Counting of the Omer, there is much less familiarity.

The Torah charges the Israelites to count the daily sheaf-offering for seven weeks (Leviticus 23:15). Since the first-century destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Jewish community has not brought such offerings. But many in the Jewish community still “count” from the second night of Passover until the festival of Shavuot. This period is referred to as the Omer, or the Counting of the Omer.

A verbal counting each night fulfills the biblical commandment. The counting does not require a religious quorum and one can count in the privacy of their home. And it is quite simple: a blessing preceding “today is the [insert number] day of the Omer, making it however many weeks and days of Omer.”

Unlike some other Jewish observances, this one is easy to observe during the current pandemic.

But more than just counting, the rabbis viewed this period as spiritual preparation for receiving the Torah at Sinai—the transition from fleeing Egypt (Passover) to Revelation (Shavuot). The transition from an oppressed people to liberated necessitates introspection, reflection, and personal growth.

Superimposed on (and perhaps buttressing) this spiritual journey, the Omer became a time of semi-mourning. During this period, we mourn the death of 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students, which occurred during this season in the first or second century. We refrain from shaving and haircuts, attending weddings and live music performances – and more.

One strand of Jewish tradition suggests these students died during a plague. The Talmud teaches that their death was divine punishment (Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 62b) for not showing respect to each other…which brings us to Lag BaOmer.

Though not the end of the Omer, Lag BaOmer marks the day the plague ended. Our semi-mourning pauses for the day – haircuts, weddings, huge barbecues and bonfires, field days and games.

Staying home, not shaving, not cutting one’s hair – this seems easy during these shelter-in-place orders. However, how can we possibly interrupt this mourning period knowing that a plague befalls us today, that thousands are still dying daily?

Knowing that there is a tradition that these deaths occurred from not showing each other respect profoundly speaks to this pandemic. To be clear: I do not believe that the coronavirus is a form of Divine Punishment.

If we were to ask the rabbis of the Talmud did God bring about this pandemic to punish us and to end people’s lives, I would presume the answer would be a resounding “No.” They would respond by saying this pandemic is here for us to save people’s lives. This pandemic is an opportunity for introspection, reflection, and personal growth. This pandemic is an opportunity to develop a newfound respect for each other.

Society will emerge from this pandemic embracing a new normal, not returning to an old normal. Our social-distancing and staying-at-home are not forms of oppression. This is our opportunity to evolve. Just as the Israelites needed to shed their identity as slaves to dedicate themselves to the service of God, we need to abandon our idea of yesterday to embrace the ideal tomorrow. And that will be a society where we come to honor and respect each other, and hold each other dear – even if it takes a while before we can do so physically.

We will celebrate Lag BaOmer this year, but we will do so knowing that the climb to Sinai may take that much longer.