Lag B’Omer, In These Dark Times

Today is Lag B’Omer, a holiday traditionally observed with bonfires, haircuts, archery, weddings and picnics. Please celebrate responsibly.

The period between Passover and Shavuot is the Omer, seven weeks between the Red Sea and Sinai. It’s also a time to commemorate a terrible plague:

Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students in an area of land that stretched from Gevat to Antipatris in Judea, and they all died in one period of time, because they did not treat each other with respect. … With regard to the twelve thousand pairs of Rabbi Akiva’s students, the Gemara adds: It is taught that all of them died in the period from Passover until Shavuot. (Yevamoth 62b)

What does it mean that they did not treat each other with respect? Genesis Rabba (61) says that they “hastened their own death by their vices of envy and uncharitableness”. And the Maharal says they “they did not give honor to the Torah, for they did not show honor to their fellows.” (Netivot Olam, Netiv Hatorah 12:8)

The Sages of Blessed Memory have an unfortunate tendency to insist that the vagaries of individual fate are not products of ineffable chaos but straightforward tales of punishment and reward. The terrible deaths of a generation of students from what was perhaps diptheria cannot be a lesson about public health, or not only that, but must be their fault. I dislike this about the Blessed Sages, but of course it’s difficult not to fall into their way of thinking. The gatherings of people in defiance of the public safety restrictions, whether for religious services or political protests, are so disrespectful of each other and everyone that the increase in cases that follows seems like a matter of justice, not science. We know it’s not that simple, and that the individuals who get sick are not always the ones to blame, but it’s difficult to keep that in mind. In some sense we want the world to work like that: the people who recklessly ignore the warnings are the ones who die, and good riddance to them and a lesson to the rest of us. But that’s not how it plays out.

I have been having a lot of difficulty at shul recently—virtual shul, of course—with all the prayers at the start of the service that thank the Divine for the neshamah, which is the soul but also literally the breath. I find it impossible to say the word without thinking of how COVID-19 steals the breath of life from people, sometimes depriving them of oxygen before they know they’re sick. People’s descriptions of the exhaustion that comes from being unable to draw breath. The weeks of desperately trying to get ventilators to patients in need of them. I have a friend who is a respiratory therapist, whose job has been saving people’s lives daily for the years I’ve known her, who wrote about the frustration of being unable to keep her patients breathing. While on the one hand, it makes my prayer Elohai neshamah shenatata bi tehorah (Lord, the soul/breath you have given me is pure) one of fervent gratitude, but on the other, how can I be grateful for my own breath, when the breath of others is stopped? Does it not make just as much sense to rage that the breath you have given others is impure?

Purity, of course, is also a fraught notion, and one where again, I have difficulty with the Sages of Blessed Memory. In some sense tehorah should perhaps not be read as purity in the sense that it is unmixed or unflawed. People who are tehorah in a ritual sense are not morally superior; they are just qualified at that time to perform the tasks that need doing. Sometimes those tasks were unpleasant but necessary duties, but sometimes they were joyous celebrations, or perhaps simply tasks. We don’t need to verify the purity of soul for essential workers—the respiratory therapists and the grocery store clerks and the garbage collectors and the firefighters and the legislators, too. We need to verify that they can do their jobs safely.

Digression: I am not qualified to write a disquisition on the niddah and tehorah of menstruation, and how the rules and regulations surrounding ritual ‘cleanliness’ can be related to the traditions of the period between Passover and Shavuot, and this day of Lag B’Omer in between. I imagine someone has written about it, and it’s probably quite interesting. It’s a mistake to think that all of the traditions are crudely misogynist, while also a mistake and a far greater one to pass lightly over the misogyny. Still and all, the notions of ‘purity’ and ‘impurity’ are difficult for me to understand even dimly. End Digression.

In Psalm 150 we sing: Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord. It’s a powerful sentiment, and one that I find moving. Not just my family, not just our congregation, not just Jews, not just people. Everything that breathes is connected together in that Psalm; everything that lives draws breath and we are alike in that. And this breath that connects us all is what this pandemic mostly steals.

I don’t feel connected, really, to the people who gathered at bonfires last night to observe the holiday, or to the people who have been gathering at state houses to protest the public health regulation. My instinct, in truth, is to feel that those people are not treating the public health with respect, that they are not giving honor to other people and thus dishonor the Torah in themselves. That they are, in short, assholes who deserve a terrible disease. But of course neshamah connects us all, and if we hope on this Lag B’Omer to see the plague stop killing people, it needs to stop killing everyone. Including assholes.

And it also needs us to start seeing everyone as connected. To honor the neshamah in each other. That means a lot more than wearing masks and staying home—but on this Lag B’Omer, we start with that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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