The joy of Lag b’Omer

The joy of Lag b’Omer

Parshat Emor, Leviticus 21:1-24:23

Sometimes the Jewish calendar provides us with mind-bending juxtapositions. This week’s parshah is Emor, full of restrictions about approaching the Holy. And we’re still in the period of the Omer, a time of sober soul searching. Yet, it is also the week of Lag b’Omer — a day of celebration.

Like much of Leviticus, Emor is difficult for 21st-century sensibilities. The first chapters are about maintaining the holiness of the Mishkan and the Temple, emphasizing that anything or anyone that enters there must be “without blemish.” Both the offerings themselves must be pristine and those who offer them must be physically perfect.

The parshah then lays out the annual calendar, specifying the sacrifices to be offered for each observance during the year. Verses 23:15-16 speak about bringing the Omer offering (sheaves of new grain), with the commandment to count out exactly seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot — the basis for our custom of counting the Omer. In Pirkei Avot, the ancient rabbis further explained that the Omer — like other offerings — also had to be “without blemish.”

These rules seem to instill a paralyzing fear of failure. They engender so many “what-ifs”: What if my offering isn’t exactly right? What if I can’t measure up to the criteria of physical perfection — am I forever barred from being considered worthy? What if, in a moment of terrible pain or deep distress, I doubt the existence of the Divine — will I be forced out of the community? Is there any acknowledgement of — or forgiveness for — human frailty?

If our parshah shows the biblical priests’ focus on the physical requirements for approaching the Holy, the Omer practice points to our rabbinic sages’ concern with moral and spiritual worthiness. The Omer counting and grain offerings had been part of the Temple sacrificial system. But after the fall of the Second Temple, that system could not continue. The early rabbis reframed the Omer weeks as a spiritual journey from Pesach, the first taste of freedom, to Shavuot, the time of receiving the Torah at Sinai. Some even considered the Omer period a time of mourning. In their teaching, since we can no longer bring material offerings, we bring the offering of ourselves, our striving for moral/spiritual perfection — an equally sober subject.

Later rabbis contributed their Kabbalistic interpretation to the Omer. In Kabbalistic thought, each of the seven Omer weeks has a special spiritual quality, which we can use to critically examine our own character. Each day within each week offers a different lens through which to assess and work on that week’s quality in ourselves. The goal is to improve enough to be ready to receive Torah at Sinai on Shavuot. We’re in the fifth week of the Omer, which is given the quality of Hod, whose attributes are Gratitude, Praise and Radiant Presence. This entire week asks us to improve our ability to be thankful for what life offers. It can be a real challenge.

So how to reconcile the two conflicting messages of this week: the Omer counting that urges us to strive for perfection and our parshah that equally sternly might suggest that perfection is impossible to achieve.

Enter the harmonizer. Lag b’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, is the fifth day in the fifth week of the Omer. But unlike the somberness of most of the Omer period, Lag b’Omer is traditionally a day for lighthearted enjoyment (picnics, bonfires, haircuts, laughter), a moment of respite from the anxiety of self-criticism and from any fear of failure. Spiritually, within the fifth week, which is Hod, this fifth day also gives us the lens of Hod — a day of pure gratitude. It invites us to take a moment to look around and give thanks for our ability to sense the Divine Presence throughout our natural world and in our own lives, no matter what our personal circumstances of the moment may be.

On Lag b’Omer, we are accepted and lovable as the human beings we are. May the benign warmth both lighten and enlighten the rest of your journey toward Sinai.

Rabbi Doris Dyen is the spiritual leader of minyan Makom HaLev in Pittsburgh. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.