Everyone loves a mystery.
I would therefore like to suggest one for consideration during your hours of bidud (or semi-bidud, as the case may be). Rooted at a critical historical juncture of our nation’s history, this mystery remains particularly relevant for us today.
First, some essential background information.
We find ourselves in the middle of the days of sefirat ha’omer, the calendar period that stretches from the second day of Pesach until the festival of Shavuot. The Torah identifies this period as a time of sefira, counting; featuring a specific mitzvah to count verbally each day. No rationale, however, is given openly in the text as to why this count must be performed. Confronted with the Torah’s apparent silence on the matter, classical and contemporary scholars offer a wide variety of approaches to the obligation of sefirat ha’omer. Each of these approaches lends a unique and significant aura to this critical calendar period.
Many scholars perceive the mitzvah of sefirat ha’omer as an act of philosophical linkage between Pesach and Shavuot, the holidays marking the two essential components in the birth of the Jewish nation. Through the act of counting, we yearly proclaim that the Sinaitic revelation, coinciding with Shavuot, grants essential meaning and purpose to the physical freedom achieved on Pesach. Through the eyes of these authorities, the omer period becomes a time of anticipation, as each year we re-experience the Israelites’ historic march toward their fateful encounter with God at Sinai.
Other authorities choose to view the days between Pesach and Shavuot primarily as a period of purification from rather than anticipation toward. By the time of the Exodus, these scholars maintain, the Israelites have been defiled by centuries of immersion in Egyptian society and culture. Numerous sources, in fact, indicate that the Hebrew slaves were on the verge of becoming irredeemable. With haste, at the last moment, God pulls the nation back from the brink. The newly freed slaves, however, now must undergo a process of purification before they can encounter God and receive the Torah at Sinai. Forty-nine days — one to counter each level of defilement experienced — must elapse before Revelation can take place. For these scholars, the days of the omer thus are to be seen primarily as a yearly period of personal reflection and refinement.
In stark contrast to the opinions cited above, yet other scholars emphasize the agricultural, rather than the historical, dimension of the omer period. Opening the yearly harvest season, the days of the omer stretch from the beginning of the barley harvest (marked on the holiday of Pesach) to the beginning of the wheat harvest (marked on the holiday of Shavuot). The Hebrew term omer, in fact, refers directly to the offering of barley that opened this period in Temple times and served as the matir, the “allowing ritual,” permitting the consumption of the year’s new crop. In this vein, a number of authorities see these days primarily as a time of thanksgiving for past bounty and prayer for future success. Others emphasize the fundamental connection drawn during this period between the physical and spiritual dimensions of our lives.
These and other approaches underscore the many positive messages potentially emerging from the critical days between Pesach and Shavuot.
Everything changes, however, during the first to second centuries CE, when a powerful tragedy dramatically transforms the days of the omer into a period of sorrow and mourning. At that historical juncture, the Talmud relates, Rabbi Akiva’s 12,000 pairs of students perish during the days between Pesach and Shavuot, because they fail to treat each other with respect.
The correspondence of this tragedy to the omer period is hardly coincidental. As devastating as the loss of Rabbi Akiva’s students was on a human level, the potential ramifications of their deaths ran much deeper. Occurring at the vulnerable juncture following the destruction of the Second Temple, their loss represented a break in the chain of oral tradition, threatening the legacy of Sinai and the very survival of the Jewish nation. Only Rabbi Akiva’s success in finding and teaching new students “in the South” ultimately mitigated the calamitous effects of this tragedy.
In commemoration of these events, the rabbis ordained that a portion of the omer period be circumscribed by laws of mourning. Marriages and other festive celebrations, as well as haircuts, are proscribed during the restricted period, the exact computation of which varies according to custom, from community to community.
Which brings us back to our mystery. (And I bet you thought that I was just using that intro to lure you into reading an analysis of sefirat ha’omer….)
Not only did the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students threaten the legacy of Sinai, but the reported cause of their death, their own behavior, refuted the crux of that legacy. It was Rabbi Akiva who famously proclaimed “v’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha” — “love for your fellow as for yourself” — as the most important principle of the Torah. By failing to treat each other with respect, the students of this great sage negated their mentor’s central teaching and contradicted the very Torah to which they otherwise dedicated their lives.
How could it be?
How could it be that one of our greatest sages failed to impart his central belief to his students? The problem would be less glaring had Rabbi Akiva’s students perished as a result of any other sin. But to transgress the very precept that serves as the core of their mentor’s beliefs? How could it be?
Perhaps the issue is one of chronology. We do not know when Rabbi Akiva determined the centrality of the mitzvah of v’ahavta. Perhaps he reached this realization only in sorrowful retrospect, as a result of the tragic loss of his students. Perhaps it is precisely their deaths that led their mentor to recognize the emptiness of Torah observance absent a foundation of interpersonal respect.
I would like, however, to suggest another possibility. Could it be that Rabbi Akiva believed his core belief to be so obvious, so self-evident and understood, that he failed to teach that belief explicitly to his students? If so, Rabbi Akiva’s experience with his students may well reflect a prevalent failing in the intergenerational transmission of thoughts and ideas.
We often make the mistake of assuming that just because something is vital to us, it will automatically be of importance to our children. We assume that the ideas and beliefs that lie at the heart of our world views are so obvious, they need not be openly stated and taught.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Our children and grandchildren grow up in worlds vastly different from our own, within which they form their own personal convictions. The basic foundations that are central to our lives are not automatically givens within theirs. The events, personalities, and milestones that shaped the core of our worldviews are absent from their experience. I sharply remember the shock I experienced a few years ago when a congregant commented to me, before Yom HaShoah, “Do you realize, Rabbi, that children born today will be as temporally distant from the Shoah at the time of their bar/bat mitzvah as we were at that age from the Civil War?” The Civil War? Ancient history for today’s Americans! Is that, indeed, how future generations will so quickly relate to the Shoah?
Perhaps not by chance, three critical days — Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron, and Yom Ha’Atzmaut — fall yearly during the omer. The deep connection that we feel toward these occasions — a product of our own life experiences and the experiences of our parents and grandparents — will not develop automatically in the hearts of our progeny. No better year than this year, then, when much of the fanfare surrounding these days will be absent, to take the time (even through Zoom or FaceTime) to explain clearly to our children and grandchildren what these days and the events they represent mean to us, and what they might mean to them.
A final potential lesson, then, from the omer. Perhaps Rabbi Akiva failed to teach his students the central value of his worldview precisely because he considered that value to be self-evident. And just perhaps, across the centuries, he teaches us not to make the same mistake. As we strive to convey critical ideas and principles to future generations, we can make no assumptions of prior knowledge and conviction. We must consciously and actively teach each and every one of the ideas and principles we feel important, through open discussion and deed.