On the second night of Passover we launched this year’s journey of counting the sefirah — the 49 days from Passover to the holiday of Shavuot, in preparation for receiving the Torah.
But since the first 32 days of the count are accompanied by restrictions symbolizing mourning, such as not taking haircuts or enjoying live music, unofficially it feels like we are counting toward the joyful 33rd day, known as Lag b’Omer, when restrictions are lifted. It’s a midpoint of sorts, before completing the count, the 49th day.*
In recent years, the tradition of counting sefirah has gained popularity. The meditative quality of living for a defined number of days mindfully; of day by day, imbuing each day in a sequential count, with interlocking mystically spiritual attributes such as “chesed she-be-gevurah, kindness within strength,” can feel like a day by day spiritual ascension, or spiritual development.
But what of all those restrictions? The first 32 of the 49 days of counting become a hybrid of noble spiritual growth marked by behaviors reminiscent of mourning.
The Talmud relates that the reason for the restrictive customs of mourning is because of a catastrophic plague that had struck during the Talmudic era. While the commandment to count the days from Passover toward Shavuot is sourced in the Torah, since centuries later a plague struck the Jewish people precisely during the sefirah period, mourning customs were layered onto this time.
Tradition has it that 24,000 disciples of the towering sage Rabbi Akiva, succumbed to this devastating plague. Hence, the mourning.
I always wondered, how could 24,000 students — 12,000 study pairs — die from a plague in such a brief period of time? It felt like the Talmud had chosen a large sum for impact in order to emphasize the scale of the tragedy.
Today, we understand the exponential nature of a pandemic. We are living it. Just short of two months ago, only one person in New York was infected with the coronavirus. Thank G-d, with the help of the heroic healthcare angels ministering to the sick with modern medicine, we pray that their lifesaving work will save many lives. But everyday here we’re counting. There’s a daily death toll that’s released, a toll that our gut is already twisted into intuiting based on the incessant ambulance-shrieking piercing the air. It’s heavy here in New York, the air is heavy.
Spring knows nothing of the virus. It wasn’t informed. The birds are chirping and the flowers are blooming as spring unfurls in all its glory.
So what is so joyful about that 33rd day of Lag b’Omer? Why are the temporary restrictions symbolic of mourning lifted?
According to the Meiri, the 33rd day of sefirah is when that cursed plague came to a halt!
The equivalent for us would be when the restrictions on us – the hand washing, the social distancing, the sheltering in place, etc. — are lifted. When we can again leave the apartment without masks for fear of being infected by the virus or, G-d forbid, transmitting it; when we may go to the supermarket or on a walk without worrying about social distancing; when we can get back to work and be among people; when the streets are not hauntingly deserted, lined with shuttered storefronts; when we can pray with a minyan in shul.
When there is no more daily death toll to count.
That was the joy and meaning of Lag b’Omer.
When will the Lag b’Omer of our time come? When will our corona plague cease?
* Sefirah may also be observed from the beginning of Iyar until three days before Shavuot.
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