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A Night of Bonfires

Today is Lag b’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, the 49 day period of counting that connects Pesach, the season of our freedom, with Shavuot, the time of our receiving Torah on Mount Sinai. (The Hebrew letters representing the numbers 33 are lamed and gimmel, hence the acronym Lag b’Omer.) This festival marks a break in the period of semi-mourning in the Jewish calendar, when the plague that had afflicted Rabbi Akiva’s students in the 2nd century, killing 24,000, came to an end. On this day of celebration, haircuts and weddings are permitted.

A completely different reason for the holiday concerns one of Rabbi Akiva’s few disciples who survived the disastrous rebellion against the Romans in the Bar Kochba revolt of 132 CE, Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, who is said to have died on Lag B’omer. The key work of the Kabbalah, the Zohar, is attributed to Bar Yohai (even though the Zohar is attributed by critical scholars to the 13th-century Spanish kabbalist Moses de Leon). In Israel, on Lag b’Omer, people flock to the site of his tomb in the village of Meron in the Galilee, near Tzfat, where they light bonfires and sing kabbalistic hymns. You can read more about Lag b’Omer here: What Is Lag B'omer? | My Jewish Learning

But the time is out of joint. In India bonfires have been burning furiously for over 10 days as the bodies of the 3,200 daily recorded victims of India’s 3rd wave corona virus surge are surrendered up to the funeral pyres of open crematoria across India’s cities, with the Indian health service overwhelmed. Over 200,000 Indians have lost their lives to Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. Whilst we begin to enjoy the benefits in the easing of restrictions due to the success of the vaccine roll-out here in the UK, we understand that until every citizen on our planet is protected, none of us is safe or protected.

And this morning we woke to the news of at least 44 crushed to death and hundreds more wounded in a stampede at Mount Meron for this year’s overcrowded Lag b’Omer celebrations, Israel’s biggest event since lockdown restrictions were eased. British Jewish leaders have reacted with horror. Reform Judaism has commented: “We are devastated over the loss of life… our sympathies go out to the families of all those who have died, and everyone in Israel who will be affected by one of the worst disasters in the country’s history.” Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has led tributes to the victims, calling it the “worst peacetime loss of life in Israel’s history”. “This is a moment to unite in grief and prayer,’’ continued Rabbi Mirvis. ‘’May the memory of those lost to us forever be a blessing and may the injured be granted a refuah shlemah, a full and speedy recovery.’’ The SWESRS community unites in grief and prayer for all the victims of the Mount Meron tragedy. And in our prayers we hold too the nation of India and all its citizens.

As we welcome in Shabbat, holding both turbulent grief and the desire for peace and healing in our hearts, let’s follow the advice of Christina Feldman: Look at the world with quiet eyes.

Shabbat Shalom, Stay Safe and Be Well,

Rabbi Lisa