The Mourning After
There were a lot of questions by our Pessach Seder. Hey, with 11 Schwartz/Golding/ and Schwartz grandchildren of questioning age and a fun Seattle Rabbi offering between a dollar to 5 dollars per good question- if you pay them they will ask. Even if Zaydie is dozing off the questions still kept coming. But it was the after- Pessach Questions that have me thinking more. It seems that a few dollars were well spent. The children want to know.
“What Sefira are we holding this year?” “Do we observe the first half until Lag Ba’Omer or the 2nd?” “Why can’t we listen to music now?” “Don’t some people not listen to only live music?” “Are tapes and CDs’ also out?” But then we got to the best question “Are we supposed to be sad during sefira, Daddy?”
For those not familiar with what I’m talking about, I’ll give you a brief background. The Talmud tells us that this period of time between Passover and Shavuot is a period of tragedy for the Jewish people.
It was said that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbatha to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. 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 Yehuda, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: "All of them died between Passover and Shavuot". (Yevamot 62b).
There are different opinions as to when the custom to observe mourning during this period of time took hold. Some suggest it was in Talmudic times (7th century) other suggest it was in the time of the Geonim (the 10th century) with others suggesting that many of the customs of mourning developed in the times of the Crusades (12th century) as a response to the post-passover blood libels and pogroms that took place during this season(see Aruch Hashulchan). Even the details of how to mourn during this time are disputed. Some have a tradition that they only died for 33 days which begin on Passover until Lag BaOmer, others count the 33 days from after the festive month of Nissan until Shavuot. Yet there are others that have a tradition to observe the mourning for the whole time. Even the process of mourning has differing customs Observant Jews traditionally do not get married during this time frame, nor do they listen to music, nor do they shave or take haircuts in the same way that traditional mourners behave. But do mourning customs mean that we’re supposed to be sad? I’m not sure.
It is certainly a strange time for these restrictions and behavior. After-all, until these customs were enacted it seems like this was a more festive or certainly an exciting time on our calendar. We just left Egypt as we celebrated Passover. We are now heading to Shavuot the day of the giving of the Torah. This is such an exciting period that the Torah commands us to count every day and week until we arrive there. There are different levels of acquisition of Torah that are outlined in Pirkei Avot- Ethics of our Father that we are striving and growing in, during this period of greatness. Why mourn? How do we balance these seemingly contradictory pathways?
Perhaps the answer could be found in the Torah portion that is read this week, usually in the period of Omer. We are told about the day of the coronation of the Mishkan- the Tabernacle of God. Hashem has finally forgiven our sin of the Golden Calf. All the Jewish people are gathered on this great day and then tragedy strikes. Two of the children of Aharon the High Priest, are struck down for a mysterious violation of bringing a “foreign fire’ on the altar. Can you imagine the horror ,… the pain.. the grief of Aharon. This was to be his day; the day when a new, great era of achievement would finally be realized. But instead it had become the day when he must bury his two sons.
Moshe turns to his brother and tells him it is upon this it said that with my closest ones I am sanctified. And the verse tells us Aharon in turn is silent- VaYidom Aharon. The commentaries all struggle to define Aharon’s silence. Some see it as a resilient acceptance of Gods’ will. Others suggest it is a external attribute and control, an almost impossible feat for the one person who is defined and chosen for his deep emotional love for each and every Jew, who was chosen particularly for that love, to be the one with whom all Jews may be blessed with the Priestly blessing. Yet the Maharal suggests something even more powerful. He sees Aharon’s silence as an expression of incredible spiritual achievement. Aharon moved beyond the sphere of words. There are no words to describe the revelation and deep connection Aharon achieved in that moment of witnessing the strong, painful and powerful hand of the Almighty. He transcended words. At the moment, that he could have felt most distant from God, he heard Moshe’s true words of consolation and felt closest to God. Closer then he had ever felt. Rashi points out, that the Torah right after this incident tells us that Hashem appeared and commands Aharon directly, Without Moshe. For Aharon had become like Moshe in his connection to God at that moment. He was one and closest to Hashem through his experience and tragedy.
The great Rabbi Akiva as well, lived at a time when he felt the Redemption was imminent. The Temple had recently been destroyed, but hope was certainly close, with the great revolt of Bar Kochva who was doing a fantastic job of knocking down the Romans and rebuilding Israel . It was a time of joy. Just like after Passover is, for every Jew that has gone through a Pessach Seder singing Next Year in Jerusalem . But then it failed. His students lost the opportunity and died. Like Aharon the moment of greatness and potential could have turned into tragedy and hopelessness. But as the Talmud, for which our customs and observances of the Omer period draws itself from, tells us. He didn’t give up. He utilized the moment to move closer. He laughed while other sages cried. He built forward rather than throw up his hands. For he knew that the real closeness to Hashem can sometimes, come even more from experiencing and recognizing the hand of God in tragedy, than from celebration and festivity.
Pessach is over. The redemption still hasn’t come. Do we just move back into our lives as we plan for the next holiday? Do we just go back to work? Back to Chametz bagels, pizza and chocolate cake and hope that next year it will happen? Hope that we can grow enough by Shavuot so that maybe we will merit it then? Jewish custom guarantees that we don’t. We have to mourn a little during this time. We have to contemplate as Aharon and Rabbi Akiva did about how to transcend our lives and move to an entirely different sphere. Turn off the music. Scratch that beard. Think about the tragedy of Rabbi Akiva’s students lost opportunity and think about our own. And than crack that Ethics of our Fathers wide open and move towards Sinai. Move towards Jerusalem . It can happen this Year still. We just have to feel we need it. Let’s count those days together.
Have a Great Shabbos,
Rabbi Ephraim Schwartz