Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Now that Lag b'Omer has past, we are into the final stages of Sefirat ha-Omer (and yashar koach to those who are still in the midst of their bracha for the counting).

Sefirat ha-Omer has many cycles and movements within it. But the two poles (separated by Lag b'Omer) are marked by barley and wheat, and by Rabbi Akiva and Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai (the Rashbi). As those who were at Zoo for the last Friday night Raza d'Shabbat drash already know, the Omer period begins with the barley harvest (an "omer" is the measure of barley offered at the altar), starting the day after the Pesach holiday.

Now barley is not an impressive offering. Nowadays, mushroom-barley soup may be comfort food, and foodies may delight in a Barley Risotto with Asparagus and Hazelnuts. But in biblical times, barley was basically animal feed, just barely fit for human consumption.

Sefirat ha-Omer ends with Shavuot, associated of course with Matan Torah (received Torah at Sinai) but also with the beginning of the wheat harvest. Ah, now, wheat -- there's a proper offering: finely ground, baked into challot, rich with oil.

So the first phase of the Omer encourages us to be "barley Jews" -- take whatever we've got, even if it's just barley, and offer it. The important thing is to take action, without worrying about whether it's good enough. But that can't be the end of the story. After Lab b'Omer, we're striving to be "wheat Jews" -- not satisfied until we reach the highest of the high, still striving even after we've given our all.

These are the poles represented by R. Akiva and the Rashbi. Akiva took action, even when one couldn't be sure if it was the perfect time -- most famously, in the Bar Kochba rebellion. But the Rashbi sought only perfection, immersing himself (and his son) in the pure study of Torah for seven years.

So after Lab b'Omer -- we move from Akiva's, "it's good enough, let's just get going already" to, the Rashbi's "we can go to the next madrega; Ha-Shem, make me higher." Lag b'Omer, the Rashbi's yahrzeit, is the day we affirm that dreams don't have to stay dreams.

It would be nice to stop at that point, all aglow from the inspiration of the Rashbi. But Lag b'Omer also involves remember the costs of traveling farther because we dared to reach higher. We remember the thousands of "students" (soldiers) of Rabbi Akiva who did in the "plague" (battles with the Roman Legions). We remember the poor farmer turned to a pile of bones by the fiery gaze of the Rashbi (B. Shabbat 33b). There is nothing linear about the Omer count -- spiritual heights mingle with tragedy, and it can be hard to distinguish one from the other.

So on Lag b'Omer, we not only affirm that dreams don't have to stay dreams. We take on the even harder task, of affirming that the price of turning those dreams into reality can sometimes be worth paying.

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