This Lag B’Omer feels different than any we’ve experienced before. Instead of gathering together for bonfires, having special school activities, and running out to get haircuts, we face yet another day of staying home, social distancing until the COVID-19 crisis passes (bimheirah b’yameinu, b’ezrat Hashem). We don’t quite know when, but some time hopefully very soon life will go back to something like normal. Whether we have a vaccine or an effective treatment for the virus, or perhaps because of some other development we can’t anticipate, we will re-emerge from our household cocoons of quarantine and re-engage with one another in person.
What’s the first thing you think about doing when things get back to normal? Going to a restaurant? Going shopping? Hanging out with your friends in a large group? I’m almost hesitant to imagine the possibilities — all of things we took completely for granted just two months ago.
Historically, there’s another Jew who had to hole himself up in quarantine for a while before being able to re-engage with society. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, better known as Rashbi, along with his son Elazar, hid in a cave for thirteen years. Rashbi had spoken out against the Roman regime ruling Eretz Yisrael at the time and had been sentenced to death. Rather than allow himself to be killed, Rashbi and his son hid in a cave, subsisting only on carobs and water from a tree and a stream that both miraculously appeared at the mouth of the cave. Thirteen years later, they emerged.
What do you think was the very first thing Rashbi and Elazar did when they came out of the cave? The gemara says that they were immediately approached by the local townspeople, who told them about an unmarked grave underneath a nearby road. Because kohanim are not permitted to be in the presence of a corpse, they were unable to travel on this road because they didn’t know the exact location of the unmarked grave. Rashbi and Elazar located the grave, marked it, and fixed the problem for the townspeople.
Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer (“lag” being the pronunciation of the Hebrew ל”ג, which is 33), is a festive day established to mark the yahrtzeit of Rashbi, the first to publicly teach the mystical aspects of Torah. It is a day when we celebrate the completion of Rashbi’s life’s work, of bringing depth of meaning to every Jew’s practice of Judaism.
This year on Lag B’Omer, I bless us all that we should take the example of Rashbi and carry it with us. When the moment comes when we are all able to go back out into the world, what will we do first? Will we focus on the more material things that we missed while we were in quarantine? Or will we focus on the ways that we can take what we have learned and use it to improve the lives of those around us?
Have a wonderful Lag B’Omer!