Counting the Omer seems like a simple mitzvah. It doesn’t take long—a blessing, the recitation of the number of days and weeks. The trick is that you have to do it in the evening, every evening, for forty-nine days. I find that type of consistency hard. Despite attempts at setting an alarm or signing up for emails, I invariably forget a night, maybe on week two or three, four if I’m lucky. This year, I put Rabbi Karyn Kedar’s book The Omer: A Counting on my bedside table. That worked well until I took it to the synagogue one week for Friday night services, only to find it waiting for me on the bimah, one week and several uncounted days, later.
While I appreciate the spiritual tie between Passover and Shavuot—journeying from liberation to the moment of entering into a covenant with God—the daily counting has always been difficult. Similarly, the minor holiday of Lag BaOmer (literally the thirty-third day of the Omer) has seemed a little inaccessible. Sure, I love a good bonfire with some s’mores and I’m not opposed to shooting arrows, but the meaning behind these activities has always felt a little thin. Last year, Lag BaOmer was notable as the first time that our community gathered in person since the pandemic, and our joy was more at seeing one another again than the celebration of this holiday.
However, this year, more than two years into the pandemic, I’m finding new meaning in Lag BaOmer. Each week our mi shebeirach list grows longer as more people get COVID, some for the second time. Students miss dance recitals, baseball games, and their proms because they test positive. And although the spring has finally arrived in Maine, it feels as if this pandemic will never end. Considering all of this, this Omer period of semi-mourning seems appropriate. Fittingly, one reason for this mourning is in memory of a plague that killed thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students. On Lag BaOmer, the plague lifted and not only were the survivors able to bury the dead, but they also celebrated. This week flags fly at half-mast as we mark the grim milestone of the one millionth American death from COVID. Our modern-day plague has not ceased. In this time of our mourning, the holiday of Lag BaOmer reminds us of the importance of finding joy even in the midst of sorrow. We don’t know when this plague will cease, if ever. But we do know that despite our difficulties, finding joy is essential. This Lag BaOmer I’ll be celebrating with my community, not because an ancient plague ceased, but because this holiday reminds us that we must create and seize moments of joy even in the midst of mourning.
Rabbi Erica Asch leads Temple Beth El in Augusta, Maine. She is also the President-Elect of the CCAR.