On the roof of the Aish center looking down at the Western Wall with Chevra & Davai in 2011

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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Mourning During the Omer

The seven weeks between Passover and Shavous represent the periods where we fulfill the mitzvah of counting the Omer, commemorate the time between when the Jews left Egypt and received the Torah on Mount Sinai and finally a mourning period for the death of the students of Rabbi Akiva.

Omer – Counting the Omer is a biblical mitzvah that we fulfill when every night we acknowledge what day it is.  This is day One.  This is day Two, etc.

Passover to Shavous – We also recognize that when the Jewish people left Egypt they were at an extremely spiritually low point.  The Rabbi’s tell us that they were on the 49th level of impurity and they use each of these 49 days to raise themselves another level.  There are 7 emotional traits that interact with each other with a different combination each day representing different aspects of our personality.  It’s a good thing to work on ourselves every day so that we’re ready to re-accept the Torah on Shavous.

Rabbi Akiva’s Students - Whereas the first two periods are happy occasions, the third is both sad and confusing.   The Rabbis tell us that during this period Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students all died.  There are a few different opinions as to how they died, but the most popular one is that they died in a plague, because they failed to show each other the proper respect and honor.  We commemorate this period by not shaving or having haircuts along with not listening to music.

This should lead one to a couple questions.  The first is: How could it be that Rabbi Akiva’s students weren’t so nice to each other when Rabbi Akiva exemplified the mitzvah of loving your fellow as yourself?  The second question is: Even though the death of 24,000 Jews is a tragedy, why do we specify such a long mourning period for them?  There have been many other tragedies in Jewish history that we’ve lost many more lives, The Exile of the 10 tribes, the Spanish Inquisition, the Khmelnitsky Massacres and the Holocaust just to name a few where many, many more Jews died.  Even when we commemorate the destruction of both the first and second Temples, we only morn for 21 days in between the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz and the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av.  There are debates as to when the Omer mourning period starts and ends (either from Pesach until Lag B’Omer or from Rosh Chodesh Iyar until Shavous), but it runs a minimum of 33 days to a maximum of 49 days.  What’s different about this time? 

We understand the first question by saying that they were such great people that the showing each other a lack of respect or honor was judged severely.  The second question is much more troubling to me and there’s no real answer for it.  It took me a long time to develop the following possible answer.

Another explanation of how Rabbi Akiva’s students died is that they were killed in the Bar Kochba uprising.

The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.  In the year 132 of the CE a great warier arose from among the Jewish people named Bar Kochba.  He had a tremendous success in the beginning of his revolt, defeating the Romans.  There was such an excitement surrounding him, that some people, including Rabbi Akiva declared him to be the Moshiach (Messiah) and Rabbi Akiva’s students joined Bar Kochba’s army. 

The sages did not all join in Rabbi Akiva’s view about Bar Kochba being the Moshiach.  This created a riff within the Jewish people.  Bar Kochba, becoming increasingly paranoid had Rabbi Eliezer killed.  Soon after the Romans put down the Jewish revolt, killing Bar Kochba and possibly Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students.

According to the Rabbis, there are many possible proofs how we know someone is the Moshiach.  One of them is that if every Jew agrees that someone is the Moshiach, then he’s the Moshiach.  This poses two interesting philosophical questions. 

What if someone really has the potential to be the Moshiach and almost everyone agrees that he is, but there are a few people that disagree?  Presumably, then the Moshiach would not reveal himself.

Alternatively, what if someone is really isn’t supposed to be the Moshiach, but everyone agrees that he is?  Presumably, then the potential of Moshiach that lies within him will spring forth.

I believe that what we’re really mourning during this period is not necessarily the lack of unity among Rabbi Akiva’s students, but the lack of Jewish unity within ourselves.  This mourning observance will continue every year until the Jewish people can finally get together and speak with one voice.  As we lead up to Shavous, may we focus on the mitzvah that Rabbi Akiva loved so much, to love our fellow Jew.  If we can master that mitzvah, the Rabbi Akiva’s dream of Moshiach will become a reality and we can re-accept the Torah on this Shavous at the Third Holy Temple in Jerusalem… with one voice. 

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