Robert Lichtman

Death & Love 


This whole Omer thing was hijacked. What was for 1,500 years a 49-day transition, an anticipation, an ascension, a culminating crescendo of time travel beginning with the Exodus at Passover and ending at the portal of the infinite at Mount Sinai on Shavuot was tragically transformed about 1,900 years ago.

Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest rabbinic and thought leaders of the Jewish people, attracted 24,000 students who devoted their minds and their lives to learning Torah from him. All of their learning, all of their intellectual growth, all of their scholarly prowess still left them vulnerable to a creeping hubris and a lack of interpersonal regard.  This contagious character flaw proved fatal, literally, as all of the students perished during 32 days of the 49-day Omer period, their deaths attributed to the malady of disrespect.

In recognition of this painful loss of life and monumental loss of Torah, we observe 32 days of semi-mourning.  A chief characteristic of this mourning practice is this: no weddings are performed. Love is put on hold.

There are two other dates on our Jewish calendar that are distinguished by a seemingly bizarre fusion of death and love. The Talmud recounts that the two happiest days of the year are Yom Kippur and the 15th of Av (Tu B’Av). Yom Kippur is a time of our appreciation, emerging from our close encounter with a decree of death.  Tu B’Av is when the Jews of the Exodus realized that their decree of death in the desert had ended.  To celebrate our release from death on these dates, the young women of Jerusalem would go out to the vineyards in beautiful white gowns and call upon the young men to meet them, to love and to wed.

Death and Love.  On the 33rd day of the Omer (Lag B’Omer), the dying among Rabbi Akiva’s students stopped.  Weddings will resume on this Lag B’Omer.  I have an imagining of what Rabbi Akiva did on that Lag B’Omer.

Returning to his yeshiva he unlocked the door and hit a solid wall of stillness.  He took a breath of stale air; no words of Torah filled his lungs. Rolls of parchment sagged from the tables. The chairs around them were empty. The windows through which songs of Torah once flowed were streaked with silence.

He took a Torah scroll to one of the tables and gently moved the other parchments aside.  He unrolled the Torah to the third of its five books, the centerpiece, Leviticus. At the center of the centerpiece, the fulcrum upon which the entire Torah rests, he read these words as if for the first time,

“Love your neighbor as yourself.  I am God.”

Rabbi Akiva sharpened his quill and dipped it into ink.  He had many days to think, to wonder, to bury and to mourn his beloved students. In the tradition of Yom Kippur and Tu B’Av, he summoned the insight of his heart, broken by death, and wrote about love,

“Love your neighbor as yourself. This is a great principle of Torah.”

And then he sighed because he knew that fulfilling this pronouncement might be impossible. After all, God’s plea for us to love one another had already echoed for 1,500 years and his students were deaf to it. “We may get there one day,” he thought.  “Not now, but one day.”

And then the Counting of the Omer will shed its veil of death and once again prove its power to bring us closer, day by day, to approach the infinite.

About the Author
Robert Lichtman lives in West Orange, NJ and draws upon his long tenure of professional leadership to teach and write about strategic issues and opportunities impacting the Jewish community, and other things. He writes his own bio in the third person.
Related Topics
Related Posts