How can we end the plague of disrespect around race-related topics that threatens our country with disaster? Perhaps the Omer journey shows us a way to begin.
Rabbi Akiva, a key player in the story of four who visited Paradise (see yesterday’s post), is also central to a narrative linked with the Omer period. The Talmud relates how 24,000 of Akiva’s students “died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect.”
Later tradition identifies the “same time” as the first 32 days of the Omer and the proximate cause as a divine plague. (More below on Akiva and the Omer.)
Rampant, Unacknowledged Disrespect: Then…
The Talmud speaks of plague victims as “twelve thousand pairs of students,” referencing the practice of learning with a partner. Among the many questions this brief, symbolic tale raises is one of awareness: Did Rabbi Akiva realize his students were disrespecting one another and fail to intervene? Or did he somehow not notice the disaster brewing among ALL 12,000 pairs of students? How could anyone be that oblivious?
One explanation is that Akiva’s students outwardly gave the impression that all was well, pretending to respect one another’s opinions and learning.
Are we behaving any differently in this country today?
How many of us have been vaguely aware that we live in a nation divided by White privilege but failed — whether through indifference, despair, or confusion — to address it, opting instead to go along to get along? And when an uprising occurs in Ferguson or Baltimore, how many of us find the whole thing too painful to consider in any serious way?
How many of us have engaged, however unconsciously, in the variety of mental gymnastics that help maintain the “all is well” impression, with any suggestion to the contrary attributed to isolated incidents and (usually “outside”) individual agitators?
How often have perspectives of people of color been dismissed as “extreme” by media, and individual consumers of it, instead of taken seriously?
And how often have we dismissed every perspective but our own, often using labeling — “liberal,” “Tea Party,” “Right,” “Left” — to define others as unworthy of consideration?
Ending the Plague
According to legend, there are 32 days of plague followed by 17 more days in the Omer. The Hebrew numbers “32” and “17” can be read as equivalent to the Hebrew words “lev [heart]” and “tov [good].”**
It is the “good heart” that seems to have been missing from Akiva’s learning community and that is all too often missing from discourse in our country today.
Perhaps we can begin to turn this around by consciously chipping away at the veneer of “all well” and pursuing real respect in its place.
What if each one of us committed to having one difficult, but honest and respectful, conversation about race?
Suppose 12,000 of us engaged in such a conversation, yielding 24,000 people with a slightly broader understanding! And if each of those 24,000 engaged someone else….
Imagine our experience of Revelation, at the end of the omer period, encompassing the many new perspectives gained during this journey. If we approach Sinai this year with hearts each a tiny bit more attuned to the neighbors surrounding us, what more might be revealed?
**lamed + bet = lev/heart (32) and tet + vav + bet = tov/good(17).
Who’s ready? And how might we share our commitments to this effort?
We counted 31 on the evening of May 4. Tonight, we count….
Making the Omer Count
from On the Road to Knowing: A Journey Away from Oppression
A key element in the journey from liberation to revelation is understanding the workings of oppression, and our part in them. We cannot work effectively to end what we do not comprehend.
So this year, moving from Passover to Shavuot, I commit to learning more about how oppression works and how liberation is accomplished. I invite others to join me:
Let’s work together, as we count the Omer, to make this Omer count.
Thoughts and sources welcome.
Share this graphic to encourage others to participate.
Aware that we are on a journey toward knowing God — from liberation to revelation — I undertake to know more today than I did yesterday about the workings of oppression.
I bless and count [full Hebrew blessings in feminine and masculine address]:
Blessed are You, God, Ruler/Spirit of the Universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us to count the Omer.
Today is thirty-two days which are four weeks and four days in the Omer.
Hayom shnayim ushloshim yom shehaym arba’ah shavuot ve-arba’ah yamim la-omer.
In the spirit of the Exodus, I pray for the release of all whose bodies and spirits remain captive, and pledge my own hands to help effect that liberation.
It is said: Up to the age of forty, [Akiva] had not yet studied a thing. One time, while standing by the mouth of a well in Lydda, he inquired, “Who hollowed out this stone?” and was told…
“Akiva, haven’t you read [in Scripture] that ‘water wears away stone’ [Job 14:19]–it was water [from the well] falling upon it constantly, day after day.”
At that, R. Akiva asked himself: Is my mind harder than this stone? I will go and study at least one section of Torah. He went directly to a schoolhouse, and he and his son began reading from a child’s tablet…
(from Avot d’Rabbi Natan, quoted in Bialik & Ravnitsky, The Book of Legends)
Later, the story (Babylonian Talmud: Yebamot 62a) goes, Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students and they all died, between Passover and Shavuot, due to lack of respect. Then, “the world remained desolate [without Torah] until R. Akiba came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were R. Meir, R. Judah, R. Jose, R. Simeon and R. Eleazar b. Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time.”
— taken from Fabrangen Havurah’s Omer Musings blog (April 2013)
Akiva, the 24,000, and the Omer
Later traditions add that the students died of a plague between Passover and Shavuot, with the plague coming to an end on the 32nd day of the Omer.
By medieval times, the plague story was linked with semi-mourning practices of the Omer period and the celebratory nature of the 33rd day. Today, the 33rd Day is a minor holiday for some Jewish communities, while many Jews avoid celebrations, including weddings, as well as haircuts and other other luxuries during the rest of the Omer, or during the first 32 days.