It’s that time of year again. Kids with ‘borrowed’ shopping carts full of wood rush by. The smell of bonfire smoke fills the air. Lag B’omer is here.
I have grown accustomed to the bonfires (and the smoke) which will accompany the onset of Lag B’omer here in Israel. I wonder if many of the younger revelers know that the fires are in honor of the great sage and author of the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (a disciple of Rabbi Akiva), who according to tradition passed away on Lag B’omer. But that doesn’t really bother me.
What puzzles me more is the main reason behind the celebrations on Lag BaOmer. According to the Talmud (and Wikipedia), during the time of Rabbi Akiva 24,000 of his students died from a divinely sent plague during the counting of the Omer. The Talmud goes on to say that this was because they did not show proper respect to one another, befitting their level. They begrudged each other the spiritual levels attained by their comrades. Jews celebrate Lag B’omer, the 33rd day of the count, as the traditional day that this plague ended.
But how could these great scholars in their own right, the students of Rabbi Akiva, the same Rabbi Akiva who preached, “Veahavta le-raiacha kamocha” Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) and proclaimed, “This is an essential principle of the Torah”, have fallen in this vital precept? How could they, of all people, have lacked respect to their scholarly colleagues?
I have a theory – distance. Yes, we’ve talked a lot about “social distance”, but I am talking about a different kind of “distance”, not so much a physical one as a respectful one. “Distance”, if you are a soldier in the Israeli army, at the start of basic training in the IDF, new recruits are taught how to address their commanding officers as ‘ha’mefaked’ or ‘ha’mefakedet’. In Hebrew, the term for this is ‘merchak pikudi’, but it is more commonly known by an English word, heavily accented by Israelis on the second syllable: ‘dis-tance‘.
Maintaining ‘distance’ is important in the IDF as most of the commanding officers are only slightly older, by a year or two, than their recruits. When I was inducted as a new immigrant into the IDF, I was older than both the recruits and the officers by several years, but still respected the ‘distance’ the officers enforced. Only on the last evening of basic training, after several week of ‘distance’, the officers ‘broke distance’ and eased the restrictions, allowing soldiers to call them by their first names, etc.
It seems to me that what Israeli society lacks today is ‘distance’. Most of us who grew up outside of Israel addressed our teachers by their last names (Mr. Jones or Mrs. Smith). Nobody would dream of calling a teacher by their first name as many students in Israel today do (and I am not even talking about calling them “Morah Sarah”, they’ll just call here”Sarah”, forget the last names). The same went for other people in authority: Rabbis, doctors, professors, authority figures, and older people in general were always addressed in a respectable way as ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’ or by their title. There was none of the familiarity that is so prevalent today. Perhaps that’s why ‘distance’ must be hammered home so hard in the IDF. Many of the native Israeli recruits are simply ill prepared to address those in authority in a respectful way.
The same is true at home. Parents are those who deserve our respect the most. I have seen many cases where there is little or no ‘distance’ between parent and child. In some cases the parent is at fault for turning the child into a good friend (ever seen a mom and daughter shopping together and in the mother turning to the teen for advice on what to wear as if they were best friends). This never happened with my dad. Whenever I would get too silly or disrespectful around my father he would sharply remind me, “I am not your friend!” and I would quickly adjust my behavior. And we never called them by their first names. Many young people today need to learn those lessons.
So perhaps this was the trap that the students of Rabbi Akiva fell into. Perhaps they became too chummy and friendly with their fellow pupils. Perhaps in their study of Torah they became too close to one another and did not leave any ‘distance’, which caused them to lack respect for one another. If one takes the analogy of a fire, which is quite appropriate for Lag B’omer, a fire can be wonderful. It can provide heat, light, warmth, etc., but if one gets too close – you get burned. Perhaps the same thing happened to the students of Rabbi Akiva, they became too friendly with one another and lost the respect they should have maintained for their colleagues – they did not maintain ‘distance’.
Yes, after two years of a global pandemic, we (at least in Israel) have removed our face masks and come back to being together again in close proximity at home and outside, but even if we don’t have to maintain social distance by being keeping clear of one another in a physical way, we should still keep in mind how to maintain a ‘respectful’ distance in how we treat one another.