The thirty third day of the counting of the omer days between Pesach and Shavuot has become by Jewish tradition a minor holiday on our yearly calendar. The origin of this day of commemoration lies in the Talmud’s reference to it as the day when the disciples of Rabbi Akiva stopped dying. Most commentators interpret this to mean that there was a deadly plague that afflicted the thousands of disciples of Rabbi Akiva and that after this thirty third day of the omer counting the plague finally ran its course and abated. There is some opinion that this may refer to the participation of Rabbi Akiva and his disciples in the revolt of Bar Kochba against Roman oppression and that these thousands of disciples were killed by the Romans during and after the failed rebellion. However we will view the actual origin of this day of muted celebration it has morphed into something more than its original commemoration through the addition of Jewish customs adopted over the ages in connection with this day. Today there are pilgrimages of hundreds of thousands to Meron, the burial grave of Rabi Shimon ben Yochai, the lighting of bonfires, parades for children and adults, weddings, music and entertainment and a relief from the tension that the earlier days of the omer count carry with them. Yet after all of the later layered trappings and customs of this day are dealt with, Lag B’Omer stands out starkly as commemorating a day when Jews stopped dying. The death of millions of Jews throughout our history is so regular and common an unfortunate occurrence that we must somehow take note of a day when this dying stopped. To my knowledge there is no such comparable day of commemoration in any other faith.
The Talmud offers us the insight that even among the great disciples of Rabi Akiva there was a lack of mutual respect one for the other. All of us are loath to grant another’s opinion and viewpoint legitimacy and consideration. We feel somehow threatened ad demeaned by opinions and people who somehow do not conform to our deeply held standards of behavior and opinion. This gives rise to eventual tragedy in Jewish life as the Talmud points our regarding Rabi Akiva’s disciples. Just as this is true regarding internal Jewish life as exemplified by the story of the disciples of Rabi Akiva so too is it applicable to the relationship of the general world towards Judaism and Jews currently and throughout the ages. The world begrudges granting a modicum of respect to those who are perceived as being the most nonconformist of all faiths and peoples. Eventually this lack of respect cumulatively builds to the concerted attempt to deal with these people in a violent fashion. We state in the Pesach Hagadah that this remains an ongoing situation in Jewish relations with the rest of the world. In every generation there exist those that wish to eliminate us completely and yet somehow with God’s help we survive, bloodied but unbowed. A people that lives under the constant and omnipresent threat of annihilation will therefore mark on its calendar as a special day a day when Jews stopped dying. It is not much of a stretch from not giving basic respect to others to finally demonizing them and wishing to destroy them root and branch. Just as the fires of Lag B’Omer consume the wood gathered for the bonfire, so too does the lack of basic human respect one for the other consume the lives of many innocent people.
Lag B’Omer therefore comes to redirect our moral and social compass to allow us to respect those that are different than we are. We certainly need no agree with those who we believe to have wrong ideas, ideals and policies. We also are certainly not bidden to be the "turn the other cheek" people. But unnecessary divisiveness and mean disrespect for others, an inability to honor those that somehow differ with us, is a sure fire recipe for future disaster and tragedy. I feel that this is the basic underlying message of Lag B’Omer, that in commemorating the day when Jews stopped dying almost nineteen centuries ago, we are to internalize the message of where not giving honor one to another can lead. The commemoration of Lag B’Omer this year as in many years in the past as well is clouded by threats and dangers directed against us. But we believe that there will again be a day when Jews will stop dying and that day will be hastened by a better social comity of mutual respect given by one Jew to another.
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