Every society on earth has been traumatized by the coronavirus pandemic with many still at the height of grappling with it. The feeling of profound loss in many forms pervades our world. But as the remarkable vaccine roll-out continues apace, we can start to see the green shoots of hope and recovery. We can start to envision our lives returning to what we knew before this all began.
Now, as we begin the daunting challenge of rebuilding our lives, the question is: How do we make up the ground that we’ve lost? How do we rebuild?
This week, we celebrate Lag B’Omer. During the Omer, we remember the tragedy of the plague that struck down 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest sages of the Talmud. Rabbi Akiva was already an old man, but he had the courage to start again from the beginning. Lag B’Omer is the day he restarted his yeshivah with just five students—and it was those five students who rekindled the fire of Torah and restored it to the Jewish people.
On Lag B’Omer, the 33-day period of mourning is put on hold as we celebrate Rabbi Akiva’s heroism and tenacity and strength in the face of adversity.
We learn this idea of rebounding from a setback from G-d Himself. The Talmud explains that we have a great mitzvah to emulate G-d: “Just as G-d is gracious and compassionate, so, too, should you be gracious and compassionate.”
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik expands this mitzvah to include the act of creation itself. Just like G-d, the ultimate Creator, we, too, are creators. To create is deeply embedded in our souls, which are a reflection of the Divine. And just as G-d created the world, we, too, are called on to create the world—to bring into the world flourishing families and societies, to build institutions and infrastructure, and to make technological advances that move the world forward.
But it goes further. Rav Soloveitchik refers to what our sages of the Talmud teach in a midrash that before this world was created, there were many other worlds that G-d created and subsequently destroyed, and then rebuilt again.
From this midrash, says Rav Soloveitchik, we learn that there is not only a mitzvah to create, but also a mitzvah to re-create after a period of destruction—to rebuild after setbacks. We do so on a personal level, and we do so on a national level, drawing on G-d’s own example.
It is this spirit of renewal and rededication that has animated so much of Jewish history. We have witnessed this particularly in the years since the Holocaust through the miraculous re-creation of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel through our very own Jewish state, and the miraculous rebuilding of the great yeshivahs after they were all but blotted out, such that today there are more people learning Torah than at any other time in our history. Together, these developments have led to a rebirth of Jewish life worldwide.
And this is the message of Lag B’Omer, of Rabbi Akiva, who against all odds rebuilt Torah and with it, the Jewish people. On this day, we celebrate the light of Torah—the sacred tradition and Divine values that give life to the Jewish people.
Rabbi Warren Goldstein is the chief rabbi of South Africa.
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