D’var Torah for April 30, 2021
Sadly, news came out of Israel of yesterday where at religious gathering of the observance of Lag B’Omer turned deadly a stampede resulted in the death of at least forty-five people with another 150 injured. According to news accounts, at least 100,000 people had gathered together at Mt. Meron in the Upper Galilee to commemorate Lag B’Omer. This is because at the foot of Mt. Meron you can find the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a second century sage and mystic who is buried there, which is where the tragedy occurred. For those who may not be familiar, we are in a period known as Sefirat Ha’Omer, the counting of the Omer. This is a time, where according to tradition, the Israelites counted the forty-nine days, from the second day of Passover commemorating the Exodus from Egypt, to their arrival at Mt. Sinai. Whereupon, they received the Torah. According to one interpretation, this time of counting was the spiritual preparation needed to be ready to receive the sacred document that would become the basis of Judaism as we know it today. The time of the Omer is also a period of semi-mourning. This is because during the bar-Kochba revolt, 132-136 C.E., according to the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva and 24,000 of his students died either at the hands of the Romans or because of a plague. This means those who follow traditional Judaism are supposed to refrain from such activities as getting their hair cut, shaving, and getting married.
The one break in all of this is Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer. On this day, the plague ceased. Therefore is a day of bonfires, picnics, haircuts, and weddings. It is also the yahrtzeit of the aforementioned Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a student of Rabbi Akiva, credited with writing the ancient book of mysticism, the Zohar.  Zohar means ‘light’ or ‘radiance,’ hence it is traditional to gather at Shimon bar Yochai’s tomb and celebrate the radiance of his teachings that has inspired generations of Jews through his mystical teachings.
Sadly, Lag B’Omer will now be remembered not only as a time of celebration and rejoicing, but also as a time of mourning because of yesterday’s tragedy. We might be wondering why they had gathered together in the first place. According to some who were there, they were simply so excited to finally be able to celebrate after a year of lockdowns and limitations due to the coronavirus outbreak.
This is a good reminder that though we continue to count every day since the first lockdown, with the prayer for our eventual reemergence, we nonetheless must be cautious and deliberate. The lives we so desperately want to return to, must be taken in stages. Like during the time of Akiva, the plague is still among us, and there are many who continue to suffer and die. Yes, it is vital we find moments to celebrate, so we can feel like ourselves again. But those celebrations must also be equally muted, just to be safe. Life is returning, and we will continue to count down the days until it does. Until then, we will continue to find ways to worship and celebrate as safely as possible.
May the memories of those who died at Mt. Meron be for an abiding blessing.
Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff
 The Zohar is actually a 13th Century work out of Spain, but the author Moses de León, accredited it to the earlier teachings of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai