On May 10, we will count the 33rd day of the Omer. The Hebrew letter equivalent of 33 is pronounced Lag (lamed gimel), giving rise to the name Lag BaOmer for this particular day. There is no one particular reason that this day stands out from the other 48 days counted between Pesach and Shavuot, yet many fascinating traditions surround the special nature of this day.
The origin of the omer (literally a measure of grain) came from connecting the start of the barley harvest to the start of the wheat harvest by counting the days. Although it is highly unlikely anything special happens to the grain crops on the 33rd day, something different does occur for Jews observing the cycle of holidays. What makes this day different, and how is that difference marked? In addition to tracking the agricultural cycle, the Omer marks the period between Pesach (representing the exodus from Egypt and freedom from slavery) and Shavuot (representing the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai). Not only was there a biblical journey from Egypt to Sinai, but there was a spiritual journey as well. As the Israelites hiked through the desert, they also had to find their way through the wilderness of their souls, to prepare themselves not only to be given the Torah, but to accept the Torah. Counting the Omer every year offers us an opportunity to defamiliarize ourselves with the Egypts we live in every day and to explore uncharted territories of our personal spirituality, to learn more about ourselves and become more open to learning from the Torah. But both metaphorically and historically, this wilderness between slavery and enlightenment is a dangerous place.
Historically, the period of the Omer is a time of semi-mourning, when weddings and other festivities are avoided, in memory of a plague that killed thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students. Lag BaOmer was the day on which the plague ceased, and thus became a day when all of the mourning rituals are abandoned and great joy permeates. Metaphorically, viewing the Omer as a spiritual journey, Lag BaOmer can take on a deeper meaning however, one more connected to the nature cycle and yet immediately relevant to each one of us. Rabbi Jamie Korngold1 writes about the importance of rest in ensuring the health and viability of a system, both in nature and in our lives. Ebb and flow is the secret of nature: night turns to day, then back to night, water rains down, and evaporates up, only to drench the earth yet again. These cycles balance nature’s systems and keep them from breaking down. So too, do humans need cycles of ebb and flow. In this increasingly high tech society, where we no longer follow nature’s rhythms, night and day can seem interchangeable, rainfall seems only an obstacle to safe driving, and social media begs our attention every minute, we can easily forget that we need rest and downtime—time to stop being productive, and to disengage with work, schedules, and friend requests.
This principle also applies to our spiritual journey. Done with sincerity, digging into the recesses of our soul may actually be the most intense and difficult endeavor yet undertaken. And just as we cannot (or should not) work nonstop, so too, even in a spiritual and personal journey, we cannot travel on nonstop. Lag BaOmer arrives as an oasis in the wilderness, an opportunity to set aside our spiritual journey for a day and just exist, to celebrate the joy of resting, our own personal Shabbat before we continue on to Mount Sinai and the giving of the Torah.
1. Jamie S. Korngold, God in the Wilderness, 2008 pp. 70-71
Jay Asher LeVine recently completed his second year of rabbinic school at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. He serves as student rabbi at Congregation Ohr Shalom in Grand Junction, Colorado. Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah