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Shabbat Message

Yesterday afternoon, I wrote an email to send to you this morning. And, as happens sometimes, the news overnight has really changed the resonance of that message: Last night in Israel, 45 people were killed and many more injured in a stampede at a celebration of Lag B’Omer. Rabbi Lauren will share reflections on this tragedy tonight, and I hope you will join us. 

Lag B’Omer is a minor Jewish holiday that has always reminded me quite a lot of the annual “School Field Day” I grew up with as a kid. One day at the end of the school year, the entire school full of children would leave their classrooms and spend the day outside playing, racing, and (most prominent in my memory) sweating. At my school, it was potato sack races, relay races, and ice pops! On Lag B’Omer, archery and bonfires are more traditional - but the feel of the day is the same. And even though I’ve always preferred the classroom to the sports field, field day was a welcome break from the routine.

It was only later in my life that I learned that the “routine” we are getting a break from on Lag B’Omer is the semi-mourning practices of the omer. If it is news to you that the omer has this somber edge to it, you are not alone; it’s not exactly intuitive. The omer is a countdown to receiving the Torah! It seems like it ought to be a period of joyful anticipation. Why isn’t it? 

As is true for many Jewish practices - and this is one of my favorite things about our tradition -  there is more than one theory about how the omer came to be a mournful time. Many point to the Talmud’s report of a plague that killed thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students between Passover and Shavuot around the 1st century CE. Others point to the broader historical context of this event -- Rabbi Akiva’s hope that the messianic era was on the immediate horizon, and the ways in which those hopes were dashed when a generation of his students were lost. 

But it’s a third theory, coming more from the realm of anthropology than the Talmud, that has caught my attention this year: anthropologists point out that many ancient agrarian cultures entered a period of semi-mourning at this time of year. They had planted their harvest, they had done what they could, and now they waited nervously to see whether their crops would be successful. The outcome of the wheat harvest that would come at Shavuot had a huge impact on the coming year for our ancestors -- it could determine whether they would live in plenty or in scarcity.  I realize this year that I am feeling some of that eager, hopeful, worrying anticipation, too. I imagine that the course of the vaccination effort during this season will have a profound impact on the coming year. Will the fruit of our communal labor be enough? Will we get to herd immunity? Will we quell the stream of variants? I feel the weight - the wait - of high stakes. 

But today, on Lag B’Omer, we release ourselves from the worry, from the mournfulness. Why today, the 18 of Iyyar, the 33rd day of the omer? Tradition offers us layered reasons to lean toward hope and trust on this day in particular: the plague reported in the Talmud ceased on this day, and it is also the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, one of the few surviving students of Rabbi Akiva, who is said to have revealed the great mystical teachings of the Zohar. The 18th century sage Chatam Sofer suggested that this day on the calendar marks the first appearance of manna in the desert, that ultimate trust building exercise between God and our ancestors. So, for all of these reasons, it is a day of music and dancing, of weddings and bonfires, of release and revelry. 

This year, as we tap into those ancient fountains of relief, new hope, and trust, our joy is diminished by the tragedy at Mount Meron, where people had gathered to celebrate. May their memories be a blessing.  

On Saturday morning, in honor of his 83rd birthday, Jerry Blumenthal will mark his bar mitzvah anniversary. Mazal tov! 

Join us this week for Shabbat services

Friday, April 30
6:30 pm Kabbalat Shabbat
Siddur Lev Shalem

Saturday, May 1
9:15 am Shabbat Morning Service
Siddur Lev Shalem
Torah Reading: Parashat Emor

Mon, May 17 2021 6 Sivan 5781