It was a glorious day.
I had left the rain and cold of the UK and was now basking in 23-degree sunshine without a cloud in the sky. The trees were swaying gently in the refreshing breeze and birdsong cascaded down from above.
Such was the weather at Auschwitz Birkenau this week.
It proved challenging to connect the horrors of the place in such conditions. However, the lesson I learnt was sometimes hate and evil can appear in a very pleasant guise but we have to see behind the mask to uncover to true sinister intentions of our enemies. Some would say that is the current climate we are living in today.
I was there once again with 250 non-Jewish students organised by the Holocaust Education Trust. Also there for the day was a Holocaust survivor from Yerushalayim, who had made Aliyah from Canada three years ago who was making a film with Rabbi Naftali Schiff and Jroots.
We chatted briefly, and he said something very simple but very profound: ‘Europe is in trouble once again, but at least this time we have Israel.’ I do not think that we are facing 1933 again but his point is well made. There are 6.6 million Jews now in Israel, 45% of the world Jewish population – it is very much the homeland for the Jewish people.
We brought 18 of those 6.6 million last Sunday for our annual ‘Weekend and Day of inspiration’.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have to ability to attend many of the 45 shiurim throughout the day, but those that I did were enlightening and inspiring. The feedback has been tremendous and we look forward to growing the idea year on year.
The reason we hold the weekend at this time of year, is that we wish to celebrate with a weekend of Torat Yisrael in the days between Yom Ha‘Atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim, during the three weeks of Religious Zionist celebration. Of course, it is ironic that these days of celebration occur during the Omer, which were originally days of celebration but have now been turned into days of mourning with no weddings, no haircuts etc.
Yet yesterday, those restrictions were suspended or ended on Lag B’Omer.
Since at least the 12th century Lag B’Omer has been a day of celebration. However, the reasons 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: ‘Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbat to Antifaras, and they all died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect’ (Yevamot 62b).
However, it is difficult to understand why we celebrate just because they stopped dying. Is this cause for jubilation? Sherira ben Hanina (usually known as Sherira Gaon) 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.
In 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 and 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.
It is against this background, Lag B’Omer represents the reassurance that “tomorrow is another day.”
There was a new beginning. Rabbi Akiva heroically started over again, teaching five new students who became Talmudic giants; ‘The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Judah, Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua and it was they who revived the Torah at that time.’ (Yevamot 62b)
The Rabbi Shimon is of course Rav Shimon bar Yochai – the very same who died on Lag B Omer and who was one of the greatest mystics and who today dominates the celebrations in Meron.
So, R Akiva despite all that had happened, his world utterly destroyed, yet he rebuilt, he had hope.
How perfectly does Lag B’Omer of old therefore fit into the Religious Zionist dream of the last 70 years, of emunah, of hope, of Hatikvah – the hope. Post Shoah, our would was destroyed, millions killed – yet we rebuilt, we had emunah, we had hope.
I cannot help but be awed by our modern history. Chodesh Iyar which for centuries had been a month of mourning with just one day of respite is now calling us to recognize the miracles. Those miracles are reflected in the origins of Lag B’Omer and the eternal hope and emunah of Rabbi Akiva.
So standing there in the sunshine at Auschwitz and reflecting on these ideas – I closed my eyes and though ‘Mi K’Amcha Yisrael’ – what a nation we are. We never gave up, not after Beitar in 135CE and not after Auschwitz in 1945CE – maintained by our belief in G-d and by one word that has been on our lips for eternity.
Join us in nine days for the climax of this festive period, Yom Yerushalayim – Sunday 13th May 7:30pm at Hampstead Garden Synagogue to give thanks and to recognise the miracles (see poster below).
Rabbi Andrew Shaw