In a few short weeks I will board the train at the station in Lamezia Terme, the biggest town closest to my mountain village in Calabria, and head toward another town, Villa San Giovanni. There the train, with all the passengers on board, will itself board a ferry boat, taking us cross the Straits of Messina to the island of Sicily. My train will continue north where I will greet the members of our liberal pluralistic chavurah, Ner Tamid Palermo.
Or what’s left of them.
As the Lag B’Omer festival approaches, I’m feeling a little like Rabbi Akiva these days. Akiva was the sage whose 24,000 students all died during the Omer. A mysterious disease killed them and it was only on Lag B’Omer (the 33rd day) that the dying stopped, hence the reason for the joyful celebration that continues to this day.
What killed them all? According to Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller (Aish.com “Lag B’Omer: The Beauty in Every Jew”), “The Sages say that they did not treat each other with kavod – respect – and therefore they were stricken with a disease that caused them to choke to death.” Heller goes on to explain the origins of the Hebrew word “kavod,” and how it relates to the word that shares its same letters – heavy. Heller postulates that this heaviness implies recognizing another person, in particular another Jew, as significant.
Heller believes, and I concur, that quite possibly Rabbi Akiva’s students refused to acknowledge that every Jew has value. So what happened? They began to choke, and gasping for air, nearly all of them died. How ironic, especially since, as Heller puts it, “failing to give proper respect to another person means ceasing to take in ruach – spirit. When a person does not honor another Jew, it shows that he has stopped appreciating that person’s unique spirit.”
What’s important here is that although Rabbi Akiva’s yeshiva was decimated, he didn’t give up. In fact he found five new students and started all over again.
As I prepare for my journey to Palermo, Akiva’s message rings true. I am travelling to rekindle the spirit of a decimated Jewish community – brought down not by disease but by the confusion caused by Jews creating havoc within a holy Jewish community.
As founder of the B’nai Anousim movement in Calabria and Sicily, I had the joy and honor to bring to the island of Sicily, ancestral home of thousands of secret Jews, the first Passover seder in 500 years since Inquisition times. The seder and the chavurah that resulted from that effort happened nearly 10 years ago. During those years Ner Tamid Palermo grew to support the first public Bar Mitzvah in Sicily when our lay leader read from the Torah scroll to the delight of more than 50 members and friends.
Our liberal pluralistic Jewish community continued to thrive until traditionalists arrived to convince our fragile group that it was now time for them to leave the woman rabbi (insulted by some in two languages as a “shonda” and a “scandolo”) and become “authentic” Jews. Some succumbed to the pressure (If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em) and now I, like Akiva will begin again.
These days it is not necessary for us to understand that an “omer” is an ancient unit of measure related to a barely stalk. But what we must not fail to understand is what the custom implies. In these days when denominational differences spark vitriolic comments, anger and resentment among Jews of varied backgrounds and persuasions, the little festival of Lag B’Omer is a spiritual alarm clock, our divine wake-up call.
As another rabbi once said, “On Lag B’Omer God saved the Jewish people to remind us that there is only one thing worse than the oppression of Jews by others. It is the oppression that one Jew does to another through gossip, slander and disrespect.” Lag B’Omer exists to remind us of the importance of treating all of our Jewish brothers and sisters with love and tolerance, appreciation and, kavod.
NOTE: Rabbi Aiello visits Ner Tamid Palermo for a Havdalah service featuring B’nai Anousim traditions and a Torah study on May18 and 19, 2013)