9 April 2010
25 Nisan 5770
Welcome back from the back-to-back weeks of Exploration Week and Passover break!
Teachers and students filled the building yesterday with renewed energy and focus as we prepare for the final leg of our educational journey this year. The onset of beautiful Spring weather and the sense of nearing the completion of the academic year create a unique atmosphere in school during these months. In addition, the Jewish calendar rhythm punctuates the upcoming weeks with frequent days of commemoration and celebration (mostly holidays relating to the State of Israel), which generate a wave of emotional opportunities to explore and affirm who we are as a community and a Jewish People.
We are also now in the period of the Jewish calendar known as Sefirat HaOmer – the Counting of the Omer, which began on the second night of Passover and continues for 49 days until the holiday of Shavuot. The Torah commands us to count each day of these 49 days between the two holidays, which, according to our tradition, is the period leading from the liberation from Egypt to the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
The period of the Omer is also observed as a period of semi-mourning, when we diminish expressions of joy (such as weddings and other festive occasions), and some Jews do not shave or cut their hair (with various exceptions and variations). The traditional reason for this mourning period is in memory of the significant numbers of students of Rabbi Akiva who died from a plague during this time. According to the Talmud (Yevamot 62b), they died because “shelo nahagu kavod zeh lazeh – they did not behave with respect toward one another.” As devastating a consequence as this would be for disrespectful behavior, this tragedy teaches a painful lesson about the importance of combining a passion for scholarship with a commitment to honoring and respecting the human beings with whom we learn.
I am struck by the contrast between the Talmudic account of the fate of Rabbi Akiva’s students and a midrash about the Exodus from Egypt that my family discussed this year at our Seder. According to a midrash cited by the Siftei Cohen, “when God looked down at B’nei Yisrael in Egypt (in response to their cries), God saw that they were merachamim zeh al zeh – behaving compassionately toward one another; when one would complete his work before his fellow, he would go and help him. When God saw this, God said, ‘these people deserve compassion (from Me).’” In complete contrast to the story of Rabbi Akiva’s students, this midrash implies that, as slaves in Egypt, B’nei Yisrael treated each other in a way that actually aroused the compassion of the Divine and set in motion God taking them out of Egypt.
As we prepare for this final, intense period of the year, these two stories offer us a powerful ethical and spiritual message about the fragility of a learning community: the character of our community is defined by the way we behave toward one another; and the way we behave toward one another – with or without respect and with or without compassion – can be destructive or redemptive.
According to the Kabbalistic tradition, the 49 days of the Omer are also a period in which we can take 49 steps toward improving our middot (our inner qualities and character traits) in our everyday lives. May we take this opportunity to raise our consciousness about our character and our behavior toward one another, and may each day bring us one step closer to being the people and the community we want to be.
Rabbi Marc Baker