By Morah Carolyn Steinman
On Thursday 23rd May, the 33rd day of the period of the Omer, we celebrate Lag B’Omer. Our children learn that it is the yahrzeit (anniversary of the death) of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai a great sage who lived and taught approximately 500 years after the destruction of the Temple. Our children also learn that this period of the omer is a sad one involving the death of thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students who were struck down by a plague. The plague was a punishment for the breakdown in the relationship between the students and was lifted on Lag B’Omer hence a day of celebration.
Initially this period of the counting between Pesach and Shavuot was a time filled with excitement and anticipation. The whole purpose for the coming out of slavery in Egypt was the receiving of the Torah by the entire Jewish people, 600,000 people standing as one. In fact the Torah itself uses the singular phrases – ish echad, b’lev echad – one man with one heart to describe the unity of the people standing at Sinai.
The Torah itself and the Oral Torah (Mishna and Gemara) which was to develop from the Written Torah and Tanach is a collection of diverse thoughts, rulings and arguments: between humans and G-d, between humans themselves. Our Oral tradition even preserves the arguments of the sages while knowing that the law will side with one sage over another. So difference, argument, clashes of style and substance, are signs not of unhealthy division but of health and passion and connection to our tradition and culture.
Rabbi Akiva’s students lost sight of this diversity of thought and custom. Their lack of respect, tolerance and acceptance of difference impacts us to this day. We have lost the wisdom and diversity of thinking that could have come from them and been part of our tradition.
The bonfires of Lag B’Omer remind us that fire can destroy (a lesson that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai had to learn too) or bring people closer in seeking its warmth. Ahavat Yisrael – love of a fellow Jew is only possible when we embrace diversity as a strength, when we build up our community and seek ways to bring us together. Judaism is not Judaism when it pulls us apart.
This is the message of Lag B’Omer. This is the message your children, all our Jewish students together, will learn around the bonfire as they roast their marshmallows and enjoy their sausage sizzle.