From the second night of Passover, some of us have been “counting the Omer,” a period of seven weeks that culminates on the fiftieth day with the holiday of Shavuot. The omer was actually a measure of barley that was presented from the new barley crop to the High Priest in the time of the Temple, in fulfillment of the commandment in Leviticus 23:15 (from this week’s Torah portion, Emor). It has come to be known, however, as the period of forty-nine days we are commanded to count. Some people simply refer to this time as the sefirah (the counting). On a spiritual level, our mystics have imbued this practice over the centuries with multiple layers of meaning, focused especially on inner growth and ethical improvement. While it is not an easy ritual to incorporate into one’s life, even with the assistance of electronic reminders, I find it very satisfying to arrive at the holiday of Shavuot, when we celebrate receiving the Ten Commandments, knowing that I have been so conscious of the passage of time and so connected to the calendar.
The sefirah is also observed as a time of semi-mourning, during which Jewish law forbids haircuts, shaving, listening to instrumental music, weddings, parties, and dinners with dancing. According to the Talmud, a plague killed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students in the early part of the second century during this time on the calendar. Tradition tells us they were punished for their inability to disagree with each other with respect. The thirty-third day of the sefirah is said to be the day in which the plague was lifted. Today (actually tonight into tomorrow!) we celebrate this thirty-third day–lamed (thirty) and gimmel (three), thus “Lag Ba’Omer”–by breaking from our mourning to cut our hair, shave (if our spouses force us to), dance to live music, and maybe even get married!
While I can’t speak to whether Rabbi Akiva’s students were the victims of Divine anger or of Roman swords during what was an historical period of rebellion, upheaval and suffering, I can appreciate the seriousness of the lesson our tradition conveys. Yesterday, our schools celebrated the national holiday known as “Teacher Appreciation Day.” As we find ourselves celebrating Lag Ba’Omer in the midst of Teacher Appreciation Week, I know what Rabbi Akiva’s students would offer us from the Jewish tradition:
Who is wise? Those who learn from every person. Who is honored? Those who honor all people. Do not disdain any person, for every person has his hour. Any person from whom we learn even a letter is considered to be our teacher; and anyone who is our teacher is considered to have given us life. Search out life teachers; in the process, you may discover new friends, while rendering yourself a more accepting, giving and forgiving person.
Appreciate your teachers—and every person’s potential to be your teacher—every day. Maybe that is the ultimate lesson we can as we strive each day to merit receiving Torah. Thank you, Mrs. Tuttle.
Rabbi Craig Scheff