May 15, 2020

Wandering. Anticipation. Uncut hair. No communal celebrations. Mourning. This is life during the Omer and during the pandemic.

The Omer, the 49-day period between Passover and Shavuot, is the time of the Jewish people’s wandering the desert after being freed from slavery in Egypt until receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. It is the time between the first barley harvest and the first wheat harvest. It is a time of anticipation both mythically and agriculturally. Traditionally, we bless and count each day of the Omer as we prepare for the holiday of Shavuot.

This 49-day period is described in the Talmud as a period of mourning. In the 2nd century CE, it is said, that a plague killed 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva, one of the great Jewish sages. As they all died in the period between Passover and Shavuot, there is a tradition of practicing some mourning rituals during this time- such as not cutting one’s hair and not celebrating weddings. But the 33rd day of the Omer, known as La’ag B’omer, is a holiday because tradition teaches that the students stopped dying on this day. The mourning customs are suspended or completed (depending on the community) and communities celebrate with bonfires and picnics.

As my family celebrated La’ag B’omer this past Monday evening with a campfire in our backyard, I appreciated the correlation between the rhythm of our Jewish calendar and the reality of our life during this global pandemic. For weeks we have been home listening to the radio and watching on the TV news about the increasing death toll of COVID-19. Or perhaps we mourn more directly for friends or loved ones we have lost to the virus. We mourn and we anticipate an unknown future. We wander through uncharted territory of our ‘new normal’ not sure where we will end up. We cancel lifecycle celebrations (weddings, b’nei mitzvah, etc.) and watch our hair grow longer as the weeks turn to months.

We all, individually and communally, hope for a La’ag B’omer for this pandemic period; a day when the COVID-19 deaths have ended and we can rejoice together in person. In my household, we sometimes share what’s the first thing we would do when the virus is over. “Hug my friends,” says one daughter. “Go to school,” says the other. “Travel to see family,” I say. Imagination is a gift during these difficult times. It lets us celebrate in our mind and name what we hold most dear. It also brings into view what we don’t miss and what new blessings this time has wrought.

We know that our COVID-19 La’ag B’omer will eventually come, but we do not have a date on the calendar to mark, so we continue to count our days and count the blessings in each day, and imagine what our bonfire celebration will be. Please feel free to reach out to me or any of the JSS staff to share your challenges, blessings and wishes for the future. We are in this together.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Renee Bauer