Reflections on the period between Pesach and Shavuot

The period between Pesach and Shavuot is known as “the Sefirah” (more commonly, though not really correct, if you ask me, is “the Omer”) during which we “count the Omer.” The Torah commands that we count the days and weeks, seven of each, of this period, during which bundles of barley (Omer refers to the bundles or to their size) were brought as Temple sacrifices. Though we no longer make the sacrifices, we continue to count the days verbally.

Historically, this has been considered a period of mourning on the Jewish calendar. The Talmud (Yevamot 62b et al) connects this time of year with an affliction that took the lives of 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students. The Rabbis don’t agree on what this affliction was: one opinion is that it was a contagious illness and the other is that they didn’t treat each other with respect. Regardless of the reason for their deaths, many Jews mourn during this period.

I have always found this particular Talmudic argument interesting. Either the students died from diphtheria or from not respecting one another! As if these were in any way similar! But perhaps they are. Unlike our ancestors, we understand infectious diseases and know how to prevent them (even if our current techniques are so overused we’re probably going to encounter significant immunity issues soon, but that’s another story!) Like our ancestors, we continue to live in a community whose members, and even rabbis, don’t treat each other with enough respect or, sometimes, the right type of respect. This isn’t the proper forum to investigate it at length, but would that we regarded disrespect like we regard infectious diseases: contagious, avoidable, harmful, even lethal!

Regardless of your Sefirat haOmer practices, I hope you’ll join me this year in consciously trying to add a measure of respect to each of your days. I hope you’ll join me in trying, just trying, to count the good in people, to see where they measure up, not where they come up short. I hope you’ll try, as I will, to see this effort not a sacrifice but as a recognition of abundance. By doing so, I’m confident we’ll receive the Torah and its wisdom anew on Shavuot.