As we travel and rejoice in our gorgeous land this long Chol Hamoed Pesach, we also count the Omer and refrain from weddings, haircuts and adopt other symbols of mourning until Lag BaOmer. Why?
We know that Rabbi Akiva lost 24,000 students during this time 2000 years ago, but as Rav Jonathan Sacks z”l writes, there is no other precedent in our tradition of mourning 33 days, even over the greatest national tragedies. Looking into the history of that period, the Bar Kochba rebellion in 135 C.E.,where over 580,000 Jewish lives were lost in battle, thousands more to hunger, and whole families took their own lives rather than suffer the torments of the Romans, Rav Sacks concludes that we mourn over all these losses during Sfirat HaOmer, including the decimation of the spiritual leadership of that generation, Rabbi Akiva’s disciples among them.
Our tradition teaches us to juxtapose the essential remembrance of past tragedy to celebrating our present blessings and choosing life. Rabbi Akiva chooses 5 new disciples and continues to teach. In this week’s Parsha, Moshe and Aharon continue to lead the People after the shocking death of Aharon’s sons. Tomorrow, the seventh day of Pesach, we will relive the Splitting of the Sea, singing praises of thanks in “Az Yashir“, and leaving the traumas of Egypt behind.
And in two weeks, we will spend 24 hours immersed in the stories of those who lost their lives living in and defending Israel, followed by a day of Hallel and national celebration.
All these cyclical events of our calendar, and the repetition of “Az Yashir” in our daily prayers, come to remind us that in personal times of suffering, we are to grasp on to life, to Jewish faith and customs, even as the waters swell around us. “Speak to the Children and go forward!,” God commands Moshe at the edge of the impossible Sea.
Our world is pained and complex, and at the same time beautiful and full of miracles.
I am grateful to latch on to the latter by participating fully in our rich, sensitive traditions and by building the land that we have come home to, after 2000 years.
Chag Sameach, Shabbat Shalom and Happy Mimouna!