Learning from Rabbi Akiva and Lag Ba’Omer: Communal Connection & Respect

23 May 2024
By: Claire Miller, NIF Rabbinic Intern
A bonfire for Lag Ba'Omer

(Photo by Roi Boshi/Wikimedia Commons)

The forty-nine days between Passover and Shavuot–between the exodus from Egypt and receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai–mark a time of profound ritual and historical meaning for the Jewish people. In the book of Leviticus, we are commanded to count each of these intermediary days, which make up the period we call the Omer. It’s easy to assume that the Omer should be a celebratory time: the Jews have been liberated from slavery in Egypt, and we are meant to use the time to spiritually prepare ourselves to receive the Torah. But our tradition has it that the Omer is a somber time. Customs during this time include mourning practices like refraining from getting a haircut, or putting on public celebrations like wedding ceremonies.

Why is this the case? In Tractate Yevamot, the Babylonian Talmud tells a story about one of our more famous sages, Rabbi Akiva, and his students. The Talmud warns that all of Rabbi Akiva’s wisdom was once completely lost to the world, as a result of a terrible plague that swept through his beit midrash (study hall), killing all 24,000 of his students in one short period of time–the first 33 days of the Omer. 

According to the Talmud, the plague that wiped out Rabbi Akiva’s students was divine punishment. These students did not treat one another with respect, the Talmud says, and this was unacceptable. Rabbi Akiva himself was spared from the plague, ultimately passing on his wisdom through a different cohort of sages. Still, the loss of his disciples and their own words of Torah was enormous. The first thirty-three days of the Omer serve to remind us just how much is at stake when we neglect to show one another honor, and respect. 

Since October 7, it seems to have become more difficult with each passing day for those within the Jewish community to treat one another with respect as we bear witness to the extreme violence in Israel-Palestine. As a rabbinical student who moves through many Jewish communities in any given month, I have witnessed firsthand the erosion of community relationships along political fault lines. 

This Saturday evening, May 25, Jews around the world will celebrate Lag Ba’Omer, or the thirty-third day of the Omer. Lag Ba’Omer is a day marked by celebration and relief: for the first time since Passover, the plague killing Rabbi Akiva’s students took no lives. Lag Ba’Omer was a harbinger of better times to come. On Lag Ba’Omer, we shift, as an entire community, out of our period of mourning and reflection, and into light, gratitude, and joy. In fact, many communities (especially in Israel) celebrate with bonfires, bringing literal light into the night.

Through our joy, Lag Ba’Omer reminds us that we are not like the students of Rabbi Akiva. We do not have to be victims of the darkness and instability of our time, if only we are able to learn from one another and honor one another. 

Demonstrating curiosity, rather than judgment, can be a key tool for such positive engagement. In the book of Genesis, we encounter a conversation between Hagar–our patriarch Abraham’s maidservant and the mother of his first child–and an angel. As Hagar flees Abraham’s home, having been mistreated, an angel comes to her and asks: “Where have you come from?” (Genesis 16:8). Our commentators are troubled by this question. Shouldn’t a divine being be all-knowing? Why would the angel need to ask Hagar this question? Rashi teaches that of course the angel knew where Hagar was coming from. Rather, the angel asked a question in order to offer her an opening to enter into conversation. The content of the question was not important. What mattered was the invitation. 

I think we can learn from this teaching of Rashi’s. Sometimes, it’s useful to ask a question even if you know–or think you know–the answer. Imagine: What would conversations about Israel-Palestine look like if we asked each other questions as a way to invite others into conversation? Too often, in these conversations, people ask each other questions only to set up the opportunity to prove them wrong. How many times has someone asked you a question, only to immediately use your words against you? Instead, we can ask people their views simply in order to deepen our understanding of one another’s perspectives, nurturing empathy and connection in the process.

I spent this semester working as an intern for NIF, and through my internship had the opportunity to bring Standing Together (Omdim Beyachad-Naqef Ma’an) to the Jewish Theological Seminary for the Elissa Froman (Z”L) Memorial Lecture to speak with rabbinical students throughout the New York area. At first I was nervous to bring these speakers to campus because I wasn’t sure how my classmates would receive them. I had the support of my administrators, but I knew that some of my peers sit both to the right and to the left of me (and NIF) on the political spectrum. Despite this, everyone was connected in their desire to learn more about Standing Together’s work, and asked important questions that led to deep conversation and connection.

This Lag Ba’Omer, I want to invite all of us to pursue this type of communal connection and respect. I offer you a challenge: Ask a question to someone you disagree with on Israel-Palestine about their views, and respond to them only with curiosity. You might be surprised what kinds of conversation you’re able to have from there.