According to the Talmud, the counting of the Omer is marked by the remembrance of the 12,000 pairs of students of Rabbi Akiva who die from diphtheria as a result of their failure to respect one another. The Aroch Hashulchan, a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, also mentions that this period also commemorates the atrocious acts of the Crusaders against the Jews in France and in Germany during the Middle Ages. Yom HaShoah and Yom Hazikaron, contemporary days of mourning, take place during the Omer count. Yom Ha’Atzmaut and Lag Ba’Omer, serve as positive highlights in an otherwise dreary set of weeks prior to Shavuot.
With the onset of Lag Ba’Omer, the plague that afflicts the students of Rabbi Akiva ceases. In many circles, the regulations concerning semi-mourning that takes place during the Omer, such as a restriction on weddings, are lifted. Our community celebrates with a wonderful afternoon of festivities and activities on Lag Ba’Omer through the good offices of Rabbi Chaim Mendelsohn and Chabad in co-sponsorship with schools and other institutions.
At the same time, there are those, albeit in the minority, who, after the 33rd day of the Omer, continue their semi-mourning state until Shavuot. Perhaps they realize that the message of unity, which is so manifest on the 33rd day of the Omer, is forgotten on the 34th. Old enmities and jealousies re-emerge. The lack of respect demonstrated by the students of Rabbi Akiva in Talmudic times once again reaches the headlines when we read about confrontations taking place in Israel among different factions of Jews, whether they are connected to the Kotel or to family matters such as marriage and conversion.
Intriguingly, the Talmud refers to the 12,000 pairs of students of Rabbi Akiva who die, rather than using the collective number of 24,000. In effect, his students are paired with each other to study Torah, but the failure of each of them to appreciate and evaluate the worth of the other contributes to their downfall.
The ancient adage that there are many pathways to the knowledge of God has, unfortunately, been observed more in the breach rather than the reverse. The Lashon Hara that abounds when groups cannot get along is, at times, insurmountable.
But communities must work together. Each of us is part of the mosaic that makes up what we call the Kehillah. The unity through diversity model that defines Jewish Federations – in Ottawa and elsewhere – is a necessary formula for community development and revitalization. While differences abound, that which unites us, the primacy of God and Torah, must override that which divides us.
JET’s Jewish Unity Live program at the end of May is an event that commemorates the coming together of the Jewish community. We need these types of events to emphasize the necessity of Jews coalescing together for common cause, be it for the sake of Jewish education at the Walkathon, or to celebrate Yom Ha’Atzmaut, and to remember and mourn on Yom HaShoah and Yom Hazikaron.
But the importance of unity should not only be marked by community commemorations, it should be demonstrated day-to-day in terms of how we interrelate.
As we approach Shavuot, the culmination of the counting of the Omer, the Talmud tells us we approach the figurative Mount Sinai to once again receive the Torah as one nation with one heart. May this manifestation of unity become a reality, and not just a dream.