We have just completed a period of time known as Sefirat Ha’omer [the Counting of the Omer] Starting from the second Seder, we begin a nightly countdown of forty-nine days that culminates in Shavuot, the anniversary of our receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.
Essentially, the Sefira ritual establishes a linkage between the freedom of Passover and the acceptance of G-d’s sovereignty in our lives that occurred on Shavuot, reminding us in a very direct way that there can be no freedom without obligation, no liberty without responsibility, no meaningful autonomy without a commitment to a transcendent purpose that goes beyond mere material gratification.
Our Rabbis taught that it took the Jews 49 days to purify their thoughts, speech, and action until they become worthy of receiving G-d’s Torah and during this period of time, we too should engage in this process of spiritual introspection in preparation for our own Kabbalat Ha’Torah (receiving of the Torah). (This is one of the reasons why Ethics of The Fathers is studied during this period.)
One would have expected that these 49 days would be marked by joyous anticipation and excitement, particularly as we get closer to the “great event.” And yet according to halacha, the Sefira period, or at least a significant chunk of it, is commemorated by a number of observances that are connected to mourning and bereavement; weddings do not take place, we do not listen to instrumental music, nor do we shave or take haircuts. [Even within the halachic tradition, there are any number of variant customs–some commence mourning immediately from the second day of Pesach until the 33rd day of the Omer [Lag B’omer]; others do not commence until after the beginning of the month of Iyar and proceed until shortly before Shavuot with Lag B’omer as a hiatus.]
While the actual observance of mourning during Sefira is a post-Talmudic custom, its basis is rooted in an event recorded in the Talmud. According to a passage in Tractate Yevamot, 24,000 disciples of the great Rabbi Akiva died in a plague (or perhaps as part of the Bar Kochba uprising) between Pesach and Shavuot. At some point in the early Middle Ages, mourning rituals were instituted to commemorate the tragedy of those deaths (as well as other tragedies that occurred later during the Crusades).
What is especially important is the reason the Talmud ascribes to their untimely demise: that, notwithstanding their great scholarship and piety, they did not show proper kavod (respect, honor) to each other.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the great 19th century leader of German Jewry, explains that kavod is far more than mere civility, politeness, or the thin veneer of tolerance that may mask a barely-concealed disdain; rather, the word kavod is etymologically related to the word for “heaviness,” “weight,” “significance.”
Truly honoring a human being means you regard them as inherently significant, weighty, worthwhile, having something of value that they contribute to the world. Kavod means you see the other as a beloved child of G-d as indeed he or she is–to not necessarily agree with all they may have said or done but to recognize the essential goodness within their souls for that too is G-d’s will.
As parents and teachers recognize, when we strive to see the goodness in our fellow Jew–even if we have to strain our eyes a little bit–the perception becomes the reality and that goodness becomes manifest and actualized. Conversely, when the message we communicate by word, gesture, or just neglect is “you don’t count,” “you don’t matter,” the recipient responds in kind.
How many children have failed to reach their potential, how many marriages have been destroyed, how many adults lead lives of “quiet desperation” (to quote Thoreau) because nobody communicated to them the simple message “you matter; you make a difference in my life; you are somebody.” This is kavod as properly understood.
Interestingly, it is precisely Rabbi Akiva who vividly experienced the transformative power of kavod in his own life. Until Akiva was forty, he was an ignorant, an illiterate shepherd who harbored deep resentments at the perceived arrogance of the learned class. His employer’s daughter, Rachel, saw at a time when no one else did, his qualities of intellect and character. She saw what he could become–indeed she saw what he really was–before he even knew it. She married him over the strenuous objections of her father who disinherited her and then proceeded to encourage him to study Torah for twenty-four years. [“My Torah and Your Torah,” said R. Akiva to his students, “are hers.”]
Having a sense of kavod for one’s fellow Jew was, and indeed is, a necessary prerequisite to be a true teacher of Torah and if, for whatever reason, the disciples of R. Akiva did not absorb the lessons that their master knew so well, the mantle of Torah leadership had to be taken away from them and given to others better suited to carry on this task.
We thus mourn during the Sefira period not merely to commemorate an isolated tragedy–which after all is hardly unique in the annals of Jewry’s blood-soaked history–but to remind ourselves that our own ability to re-accept G-d’s Torah depends in large part on unity, ahavat yisrael, and seeing our fellow Jews with kavod. Rather than undermining our preparation for the joyous event of Matan Torah, remembering the sins of R. Akiva’s disciples is part and parcel of that very preparation.
In a sense, therefore, Sefirat Ha’omer embodies two paradoxical notions that at first blush appear mutually exclusive. By reiterating on a daily basis that freedom derives its value only when coupled with the discipline and commitment of Torah, Sefira calls upon us to intensify our adherence and fidelity to Jewish ritual and Torah study. By remembering the students of Rabbi Akiva, we are reminded of the imperatives of achdut (unity), ahavat yisrael, and kavod.
It is easy to identify in our own experiences zealously-committed Jews, passionate about their faith but rejecting of all who do not share those commitments. There are others who perhaps appear gracious and tolerant, exemplars of ahavat yisrael, but stand for nothing, believe in very little, and essentially subscribe to moral and religious relativism. The period of Sefira calls upon us all to transcend these narrow dichotomies: to have faith without rejection; commitment without intolerance; fidelity without divisiveness; and passion without exclusion. Not an easy task but whoever said being a good Jew was?