Many of us feel these days that we have lost track of counting the days. These weeks of quarantine seem like years; we wish we could have been able to already count the days down. At the same time, Jewish tradition tells us to keep track of counting the omer—a tradition derived from the Torah to count 50 days from Passover until the holiday of Shavuot. That is the day that, according to tradition, we received the Torah.
We could have thought that those days between the two holidays would be only days of celebration; however, in Jewish tradition, they also include some mourning customs. According to tradition, 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva—a leading sage in the first century CE—died during those days. Some say they died of a plague, while others say they were killed during the rebellion against the Roman Empire’s prosecution of Jews. Rabbi Akiva himself died as a martyr defending the right to teach and observe the Torah.
The Talmud tells that after the horrible tragedy, five students of Rabbi Akiva survived and passed along the Torah. One of them was Rabbi Shim‘on Bar Yochai (also known as Rashbi), one of the most famous sages. According to tradition, the thirty third day of the “counting of the omer” is Rashbi’s yahrzeit, celebrated as Lag Ba’omer. A famous Talmudic legend tells that as Rashbi was himself persecuted by the Romans, he hid in a cave in the Galilee with his son. When he got out of the cave, after 12 years, and saw Jews occupied with agriculture instead of learning Torah, he was furious and smote everything by his very glance. A heavenly voice came down and said to Rashbi, “Did you emerge from the cave in order to destroy my world? Return to your cave!” We now can understand this heavenly voice as a criticism against the destruction of the world. However, Rashbi, according to the legend, went back to the cave and said to his son, “You and I suffice for the entire world.”
How relevant to our days. We all mourn the horrible deaths of thousands of our current “plague” casualties. We are all “in our own caves” at home, alone, missing the lives we have once had only a few weeks ago. But, unlike Rashbi and Rabbi Akiva, we are not hiding from persecution—although we are worried about the rising anti-Semitism in the past few years and specifically amidst these COVID-19 times.
Unlike Rashbi and his son, we do not think that “you and I” really suffice for sustaining this world. We know that the only way to fight any trouble that might come—plagues, hatred or prosecution—is by addressing and countering it together, all of us cooperatively, Jews and non-Jews alike. Once we will be able to get out of our physical “caves,” we want to continue our tikkun olam efforts to build, replenish and nurture the world. We want to continue to transform suffering and persecution into care for others, for those in need and for the most vulnerable in our society. As we say in traditional Jewish prayer, “'May this time be a time of mercy and acceptance.” May we come out of this period stronger together.
Eliraz Shifman Berman is the Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council and Center for Jewish Life and Learning. Connect at (203) 387-2424 x308, firstname.lastname@example.org or jewishnewhaven.org/jewish-community-relations-council.