Have you noticed? On our Jewish calendar we are smack in the middle of “Counting the Omer,” an activity that may no longer be useful in modern society, but for our agrarian ancestors it was a pretty big deal. The omer is remembered as an important unit of measure to determine the size of a stalk of barley but the Talmud tells us that it was during this period of counting that twenty-four thousand students of the esteemed Rabbi Akiva were killed by a mysterious disease.
There was only one day when lives were spared. On the 18th day in the Hebrew month of Iyar, which was the thirty-third day of the Omer or, “Lag B’Omer,” there was great rejoicing. “Baruch HaShem,” the horrible plague had ended. To commemorate what seemed to be a miraculous event, our sages decreed that “Lag B’Omer” become a day of celebration.
Rabbis interpreted the tragedy as God’s way of admonishing us Jews for our serious lack of respects for one another. According to the sages, the miracle that occurred on Lag B’Omer was God’s reminder that genuine respect and appreciation for the differences among us can change the course of history.
This year the 18th of Iyar, or the festival of Lag B’Omer, falls on Sunday, May 18 – a perfect day to set aside the denominational differences that separate us and focus on a new idea, grounded in Jewish pluralism that maintains that “labels are for the jelly jars, not the Jews.”
In Israel, Lag B’Omer is a day for picnics and bonfires. In fact, some of these fires are so huge that they can be seen by satellite cameras thousands of miles up in space. Throughout the world, Jews of all backgrounds can light their own fire. They can shine a light on the idea that acceptance and appreciation of Jewish diversity is essential to our survival.
In practical terms, synagogues can set aside their denominational differences so that conservative, orthodox, reconstructionist and reform congregations along with humanistic or secular groups can come together even if it’s for just one common event.
Within families, interfaith couples can be warmly embraced, demonstrating that, in honor of Lag B’Omer, everyone has put to rest any residual animosity related to children or grandchildren “marrying out.”
Could it be that on Lag B’Omer God saved the Jewish people in order to remind us that there is only one thing worse than the oppression of the Jews by others, and that is the oppression that one Jew does to another Jew through gossip, slander and disrespect? If so, it is indeed a timely lesson echoed by none other than former UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. In an address this week to the American Jewish Committee, Sacks opined, “How can we expect the world to love us when we don’t love one another?”
The little festival of Lag B’Omer reminds us that when we Jews open our shuls and open our hearts to Jewish diversity – when we look beyond “names and noses,” and extend the hand of Jewish welcome to Jews of all backgrounds and denominations, then we will have created an opportunity for the ancient promise of Lag B’Omer to unleash its healing power and bring us together as the “mispacha”, the Jewish family that we truly are.