The days between Passover and Shavuot are days of mourning in the Jewish tradition. This practice, forbidding weddings and other signs of public celebration, harkens back to the end of the first century, when 24,000 students of the great sage Rabbi Akiva died in a plague. This disaster came about, we are taught, because they did not act with respect toward one another.
While the prohibition of celebration defines much of how we experience this season, it is of course not its primary identity. The biblical focus is on agriculture, as we count the 49 days of Omer spanning the barley harvest and the wheat harvest, also connecting the holidays of Passover and Shavuot. We define a process of movement from redemption to revelation as we count the days from the exodus to the day in which Moses receives the Torah at Mount Sinai. The counting builds anticipation of the climactic covenantal moment, marking it as the reason and end goal of the exodus from Egypt.
The Kabbalists presented another perspective on this process, defining it as a time of spiritual growth in preparation for the encounter with the divine. They identified each day as representing a specific attribute of divinity, a unique spiritual orientation which we are called upon to refine within ourselves as we strive to be godly. This systematic “self-improvement” program takes us through a step-by-step process of inner refinement, bringing a distinct identity to every day and making it more than just a step along the way.
This brings us to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, whose memory we celebrate on Lag Ba'omer, the 33rd day of the count. This mystical sage was a primary student of Rabbi Akiva in the stage if his life that followed the death of his multitude of students. We know that this powerful and deep personality is credited with imparting the foundations of what we know today as kabbalah. Perhaps it was his teaching that introduced the mystical “self-improvement” take on this season, a focus that I believe can counter the pitfall of Rabbi Akiva’s original students.
What is it that led those original students to a lack of mutual respect? Perhaps it was a sense that all that matters is the end of the process - a single revelation that can be understood on its own and for its own sake. A process orientation focusses us on the process itself, appreciating the complexity and multifaceted nature of truth. As we dedicate ourselves to personal growth, and engage in relationships, we learn to know ourselves and others as different values and character traits interact. It seems to me that one who engages in such a process will inherently understand the limitations of their own achievements and the value of fellow travelers. Who will I turn to for guidance in those areas where I am challenged if not to others who have more fully realized those elements of personal refinement that I yet lack?
The Omer is a time dedicated both to inner personal growth and to enhancing mutual respect and valuing the other. While these may seem to be opposite areas of focus, Sefirat Ha’omer teaches us that these two ideals are deeply in support of one another. It teaches us that both are needed in our search for truth and revelation.
Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz is Dean of Sulam Yaakov, a Beit Midrash for Community Leadership Development in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
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