Facebook Post by Rabbi Perlin in the Time of Coronavirus (5/12/2020)
Tuesday Post 5.12.20: Lag B’Omer
by Rabbi Amy R. Perlin, D.D.
Today is Lag B’Omer in the Jewish calendar. It is the 33rd day of the counting of the omer, the seven weeks that are counted between the festival of Passover and our next festival, Shavuot, commemorating the receiving of the Torah at Sinai, which will take place on Friday, May 29th this year.
I have never been a fan of the counting of the omer. An omer is a measure of barley that was counted, according to Leviticus 23:9-21 and Deuteronomy 16: 9-12, from temple times as a means of marking the seven weeks between Passover and the festival of Shavuot. I am sure it began as an agricultural way of marking time in anticipation of celebrating the receiving of the Torah at Sinai. The explanations of the omer and the holiday of Lag B’Omer are fraught with historical inconsistencies and observances that have never worked for me. Modern Israel solved the problem beautifully by making it an outdoor holiday celebrated with bonfires and barbeques. I am not a fan.
Perhaps, I don’t like this holiday, because coming from a very traditional religious school, where many of my teachers were very orthodox, even though the synagogue and its members were not, we focused on the time after Passover as being a time of mourning where weddings were forbidden, as were haircuts and music. Even though our community didn’t observe the restrictions other than the ones about weddings, I felt that the post-Passover time of mourning didn’t make sense for me in the 20th century (I suppose I was a rabbinic thinker even as a child!). I also wasn’t very athletic, so the only Jewish holiday, Lag B’Omer, that was celebrated with sports events, didn’t work for me either. And then the final nail in Lag B’omer’s coffin, for me, came from the fact that every year we were told that we were celebrating because there was a plague in the Roman period that killed 24,000 students of Torah and that plague lifted on the 33rd day of the omer. Why I would celebrate when so many people had died? That also did not make sense to me. So, Lag B’omer has always been my least favorite Jewish holiday.
And now… the rest of the story. Now, we are living in a pandemic. People are dying all around us and our world is fragmented and unsettled in its response. Now I know that if the plague lifted tomorrow, and I knew that we were safe and no one else would die of this terrible Covid-19, I would want to have a holiday to celebrate the end to the death and the fear. Now, I know that when you are living through a plague, all you want to do is go out and run around, have a barbeque, celebrate life with other people. Now, I understand a bit better how this all transpired in the complexity of Jewish historical evolution.
Sadly, I don’t think we will have such a day with coronavirus, where it will suddenly end and disappear. Even if there is a vaccine, there will be distribution issues and failures. Even if we have a leveling of the curve, there will still be those who die of this horrible disease. Even if we have treatments, this plague is not going away any time soon. We are going to have to learn to live with it and to try to overcome it to the best of our ability. I don’t see a single day when the plague will lift and all will be well. But, when we conquer the worst of it, it will be good to be able to celebrate that milestone, in some way, with some kind of day or ritual.
I am still not going to willingly count the omer. Just call me a Jewish radical. But, today, I will acknowledge that having a day to celebrate the lifting of a plague is a good thing. And for now, using today to pray that there be no more plagues is something I can understand.
Blessed are You, O Lord my God, Ruler of the universe, Who sustains us in our fear and our grief, and commands us to do all we can to stay alive and keep others alive. Blessed are You, Who gives us strength to continue to pray and hope for a day without plague. Amen.