Waiting to Emerge from the Cave

by Rabbi Audrey Pollack, April 29, 2021

As we enter the month of May, we have just passed the holiday of Lag BaOmer on the Jewish calendar. The Omer period itself refers to the 49 days that we count off daily, counting the barley harvest, the sheafs that were brought to the Temple in ancient times, and counting upward from Passover, festival of freedom, to Shavuot, Z’man Matan Torateinu, the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai. For 49 days we count, seven times seven weeks–each day one step farther along the path from the Egypt to Mount Sinai. Traditionally, the Omer period is a time of semi-mourning, when wedding celebrations do not take place, and as a sign of grief, some in the Jewish community do not cut their hair. Anthropologists report that many cultures have similar periods of restraint in the early spring to symbolize their concerns about the growth of their crops.

Then, on the 33rd day of the Omer– lamed (counted as 30) + gimmel (counted as 3), spelling “lag”–on the 18th of the month of Iyyar, we arise from our mourning for the day, and we celebrate. On Lag BaOmer, that mourning period is suspended and it is a day of celebration – Jews cut their hair, get married, light bonfires, and have picnics.

Exactly why the Omer period is a time of mourning is somewhat obscure. The Talmud tells us that during this season a plague killed thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students because they did not treat one another respectfully. According to a medieval tradition, the plague ceased on Lag Ba’Omer, this thirty-third day of the Omer, interrupting the sadness of the Omer period for twenty-four hours. A completely different reason for the holiday refers to one Rabbi Akiva’s few disciples who survived the Bar Kokhba revolt, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai. He is said to have died on Lag Ba’Omer, and it was his wish that his students mark the day by rejoicing, instead of weeping.

Rabbi Shimon continued to defy the Roman rulers even after Bar Kokhba’s defeat, and was forced to flee for his life and spend years in solitary hiding. According to legend, he and his son Eleazar hid in a cave for twelve years, where a miraculous well and carob tree sustained them while they spent their days studying and praying.

The first time Rabbi Shimon came out of the cave, he was completely “out of tune” with the people of his generation. A Heavenly Voice called out to him “Bar Yochai, go back to the cave! You are no longer fit for the company of other human beings.” Rabbi Shimon went back to the cave, reoriented his perspective, and emerged again. This time, he was able to interact with the people of his generation and become a great teacher of Torah.

Whatever this Omer period is, it is a period of waiting. During these seven weeks of spring, especially here in the cold climate of Canada, we wait for consistently warm weather when it is safe to plant our flowers and vegetable gardens. Especially this pandemic year, we are very cognizant that we are waiting – waiting not only for the weather to be consistently warm, but waiting for vaccines, waiting for the infection numbers to go down, waiting for our hospital beds to be less busy. Although Lag BaOmer has passed, this year in our Jewish period of counting upwards we are waiting, isolating at home, staying in our caves as we wait for the number counts to go down, for the plague to lift.

Waiting is stressful. Waiting is about being in between. Waiting is the long stretch of time we are still in now on this pandemic road trip, not knowing when we will get there.

We wonder: what will it be like when we, like Rabbi Shimon and his son Elazar emerge from the darkness of the cave. Will we be ready? Will we be fit for the company of other human beings? Or will we need to reorient our perspectives? Surely, we have reoriented our perspectives a great deal in this last year. Meanwhile we wait, accepting where we are now, waiting to emerge. We will find our way out together, guided by Torah. On this journey through the pandemic wilderness we look toward the light.

Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack

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