By Rabbi Mendel Matusof
Tuesday, May 12 (erev begins the evening of Monday, May 11), we will be celebrating the Jewish holiday of Lag BaOmer. Lag BaOmer is the day Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai passed away in the second century CE. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was the first to publicly teach the mystical dimension of the Torah known as the Kabbalah and is the author of the classic text of Kabbalah, the Zohar. On the day of his passing, Rabbi Shimon instructed his disciples to mark the date as “the day of my joy.” Every year on Lag BaOmer, we celebrate Rabbi Shimon’s life and the revelation of the esoteric soul of Torah.
Lag BaOmer also commemorates another joyous event. The Talmud relates that in the weeks between the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavuot, a plague raged among the disciples of the great sage Rabbi Akiva (teacher of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai), “because they did not act respectfully towards each other.” On Lag BaOmer the deaths ceased. Thus, Lag BaOmer also carries the theme of loving and respecting one’s fellow (ahavat Yisrael).
Rabbi Akiva taught that “‘Love your fellow as yourself’ is a cardinal principle in the Torah”; indeed, this is the most famous of his teachings. One would therefore expect that Rabbi Akiva’s disciples would be the foremost exemplars of this principle. How was it that they, of all people, were deficient in this area?
Rabbi Akiva taught them to love, but their love was lacking the respect necessary to be truly loving. Love is an expression of the lover; respect is the acceptance of the one being loved. Rabbi Akiva’s students believed that the greatest expression of love is to criticize for mistakes, reprimand for errors, admonish for faults. Such a love, a love lacking in acceptance and respect, is the love we are taught on Lag BaOmer not to emulate.
At the heart of our love, we need to have unconditional acceptance. Not G-d forbid an acceptance which indulges in their failings, rather an acceptance for this individual which recognizes that behind the imperfect externalities lies a most stunningly luminous spark of G-d.
This love for each other saturated with unconditional acceptance is a radical concept. A great educator truly sees no distinction between the various children under their tutelage and care. Each one is pure with immeasurable possibilities. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai reminds us that we are all G-d’s children.
In Chabad, Lag BaOmer is an especially celebrated holiday. It does not suffice to love each other. Pluralism and tolerant coexistence are not enough. Rather we must strive for unconditional acceptance for the other because when we look deep enough, we discover that the other and ourselves are to G-d one and the same.
As we prepare to celebrate Lag BaOmer in this unprecedented time, the parallels to this current pandemic are quite apparent.
As a society, we put ourselves into various camps, groups, and communities. Yes, we work on cooperation and tolerance, but we often don’t get past the us versus them mentality. We frequently solve our problems through disassociation and separation.
COVID-19 has reminded us as did Rabbi Shimon that when we look just a little deeper, when we get past our social divisions and national borders, we are all so much the same. A microscopic enemy to a foreign people on the other side of the globe is my enemy as well. The responsible and Judaism-mandated decision I make to be socially distant impacts all of society.
This pandemic challenges us to realize that we are not so different, we are very much the same, you and I.
With prayers that the mourners find comfort, that the ill find healing, that the leaders find courage, that society finds its determination, that the world finds a cure, and that we all find the resolve to bring the true spirit of respectful love amongst us, bringing about the imminent arrival of Moshiach.
Happy Lag BaOmer.
Rabbi Mendel Matusof is the rabbi and director at the Chabad House at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Born and raised in Madison, Rabbi Matusof received his training in France, Canada, Israel and New York. In 2005 he and his wife Henya moved back to Madison to direct the Chabad activities on the UW campus. Under his leadership a new Chabad house on campus was established, serving the thousands of students of UW.