Sunday is Lag B Omer.
Everyone loves Lag B Omer. As a kid in North West London Jewish Day School it meant the annual school outing. For many it is a chance for a haircut and of course it is a day of smachot. There are also bonfires, bows and arrows, music, food, entertainments etc.
However, when did it start being such a happy day? Since at least the 12th century Lag B’Omer has been a day of celebration. However, the reasons why that is are shrouded in mystery.
The best-known reason for the celebration of Lag B’Omer is that on this day Rabbi Akiva’s students stopped dying.
It is difficult to understand why we celebrate just because they stopped dying. Is this cause for jubilation? The Gemara in Yevamot, in fact, alludes not to a plague, but to the followers of Rabbi Akiva who were soldiers in the ill-fated insurrection of Bar Kokhba against the Romans.
According to this view, the “plague” refers to a series of disastrous military defeats, and Lag B’Omer marks a victory, which was at least a temporary source of hope and cheer.
This is why the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students was so cataclysmic: With the crushing of the Bar Kokhba rebellion, the messianic expectation came crashing down to earth.
Millions died – blood flowed in Beitar up to our knees. A severe demoralization set in—a demoralization that threatened to overwhelm the generation and bring about despair for the future of Torah and the Jewish People. We were exiled – a long exile – seemingly without end.
Against this background, Lag B’Omer represents the reassurance that “tomorrow is another day.” There is a new beginning.
The Gemara continues that Rabbi Akiva heroically started over again, teaching five new students who became Talmudic giants. R Yehudah, R Meir, R Nehemiah, R Yossi and a certain Rav Shimon bar Yochai – the very same who died on Lag B Omer, who was one of the greatest mystics and whose life is celebrated every year at Meron by his grave.
Rabbi Akiva, despite all that had happened – he had seen his world destroyed, yet he rebuilt, he had hope in the future.
How perfectly does Lag B’Omer of old fit into the Religious Zionist dream of the last 70 years and within the new dates of Chodesh Iyar – those of Yom Haatzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim – all connected with hope, with Emuna (belief) and the eternity of Am Yisrael.
We cannot help but be awed by our modern history, a history that Rabbi Akiva knew would come to pass. He was convinced that one day we would return to the land of Israel and the streets of Jerusalem.
He never lived to see that historic day – but we did, and in just 12 days I will be in Yerushalayim for the 50th anniversary of the reunification of the city with thousands of others. Some of you are joining Mizrachi in Jerusalem but all of you can join up with us in your communities on Tuesday 23rd May as we link the world with a live broadcast with Rabbi Sacks from the Kotel on Yom Yerushalayim. Book at www.mizrachi.org.uk/events/j50/
Rabbi Akiva never gave up, and nor did we, maintained by our belief in God and Torah and by one word that has been on our lips for eternity.