During our Shabbat service last Friday, when we got to the Shehechiyanu moments, celebrating happy events, Vivian Cohen spoke up, “The CDC has declared the pandemic is over.” This made me think about an ancient plague that ended at this time years ago. The Talmud tells that during the Bar Kochba Revolt (in 135 CE) “On the 33rd day after Passover (Lag B’Omer), a plague that had killed 20,000 people ended.” I used to wonder if this high number of deaths was an exaggeration. Today I am more sensitive to the devastation wrought by an epidemic. In America, we have lost 1.1 million people in this modern plague. Perhaps in the future we will observe Lag B’Omer as a day to remember the end of Covid, and to remember our friends and family we have lost.
Lag B’Omer, which we celebrated in our Religious School this week, is a day rich in meaning. There is a “Green” custom to save the lulavim (palm branches) from Sukkot for “Holy Recycling,” and to use them to make a bonfire, symbolizing “The Light of Torah and Learning.” Our students loved making smores over the firepits of palm branches.
Why does Lag B’Omer symbolize “The Light of Torah and Learning?” The Romans suppressed the Bar Kochba Revolt by targeted assassinations of Jewish leaders. Virtually all the rabbis of that generation, including Rabbi Akiva, were martyred. Hadrian, the Roman ruler, decreed “Anyone who gave or accepted semikhah (Rabbinic Ordination) would be killed, and any city in which the ceremony took place would be razed, and all crops within a mile of the ceremony’s site would be destroyed.” (Talmud Bavli.)
A courageous resister, Rabbi Yehuda Ben Bava, gathered the last five students of the murdered Rabbi Akiva. These were the last five students who had survived the Roman massacres. Rabbi Yehuda Ben Bava gave them Rabbinic ordination in a semi-secret ceremony. Tragically, Roman Soldiers showed up as the ceremony was ending. The soldiers killed Rabbi Yehuda Ben Bava on the spot, but the five new rabbis managed to escape and flee to safety. Our Judaism, we practice today can be directly traced to those five Rabbis ordained on that Lag B’Omer day in 135 CE.
Till today, Rabbinic Ordination Ceremonies usually occur as close as possible to Lag B’Omer. This past week I was honored to attend the Rabbinic Ordination of Rabbi Amanda Weiss, who interned at Shaaray for two years. She will spread the light of Torah as a Rabbi of a prestigious synagogue in our nation’s capital!
Religious School graduation usually occurs near Lag B’Omer. Tonight, we will celebrate the graduation of the Confirmation Class of 2023. I could not be prouder of our confirmands and their commitment to the future of the Jewish community. Please come tonight to celebrate with our confirmands and their families.
In Judaism, Lag B’Omer is also the time for “Teacher Appreciation.” Please come tonight to the temple to help us honor our Jewish Teachers who inspire and guide our children.
Lag B’Omer is about resisting oppression. Today, Ukraine is the victim of the largest war of oppression in Europe since the Nazis. Please come to Shaaray next Friday as we host the Ambassador of Ukraine, Father Agelov of the Ukrainian Church, Ukrainian opera star Stephan Szkafarowsky (of the Metropolitan Opera), Ukrainian Refugees of RESET, in a historic event for our community.
Please remember to vote at our Annual Meeting May 31. Your participation in our community decision making keeps the fires of “Torah and Learning” burning brightly in our hearts with light and hope.
Rabbi David Wilfond