Rabbi Ilan Goldman
Former Rav-Shaliach, Bnei Akiva England
Currently Executive Director, Project Aseret
A month full of potential
One of Judaism’s greatest foundations is the cycle of the Jewish calendar.A cycle on which the Rambam’s teachings suggest the very existence of Judaism depends on. The Ramchal, towards the end of Derech Hashem, teaches that each festival has a special light and influence which it brings upon the people, and it is at that point when we can reach the special potential that a festival brings with it. We are familiar with the idea that Elul, Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, are days in which we should be dedicating our service of Hashem to self reflection and to do teshuva, repentance, and getting closer to Hashem, as it is then when these are more required and most achievable. The Ramchal teaches that each festival in the Jewish calendar has its special attribute and we should be dedicating our service of Hashem to that attribute.
Pesach is the time in which we focus on achieving a higher level of freedom, and Shavuot on receiving the Torah. The month in between the two is the month of Iyar. This month seems a little neglected, coming between two of the three Pilgrimages and having no festival of its own.
The Ramban on our Parasha gives Iyar a lot more credit than meets the eye. He describes the period between Pesach and Shavuot as a kind of Chol HaMoed, with Pesach being the first Chag, similar to Sukkot, and Shavuot being the last Chag, similar to Shmini Atzeret. The days of the Omer, of which the majority are during the month of Iyar, are days in which the first generation of Am Yisrael built up from the forty-ninth level of impurity to the forty-ninth level of purity. This is a period in which every year we have the potential to elevate ourselves, and to immerse ourselves in purity, allowing us to be ready for the receiving of the Torah.
However, the period of the Omer is not celebrated as a Chol Hamoed, and the emphasis we give in these days does not emphasise the attribute of immersing in purity. These days have become days of mourning. Grief in Judaism is mostly regarding loss of potential. In the period of the Omer, we mourn the death of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 talmidim (students) who died at this time. Many attribute their death to the fact that they did not honour one another. The mourning is regarding the loss of Torah scholars. The majority of the Oral Torah we have today came from Rabbi Akiva’s five new talmidim, after the 24,000 had died. One cannot even begin to imagine the level of Torah knowledge, study and love we would have had, had all his talmidim lived.
Another explanation of their death was that they died in the battlefield when Rabbi Akiva sent them to fight with the Bar Kochba rebellion. The lost potential here is not only their lives and the Torah they could have passed down, but also the potential of achieving independence. This could have been Yom Ha’atzmaut. Though the rebellion achieved three years of independence, the sad end was that hundreds of thousands died and 1,800 years of bloodshed and exile began. The fighters in this rebellion were the last to have genuine gevura, heroism. It took 1,800 years until a new generation emerged, a generation which had tremendous gevura both in the battlefield and in the diplomatic field. When the state of Israel was declared, it was the end of the ‘apologetic’ Jew and the beginning of a new era. It seems to be no coincidence that Lag Ba’Omer, which marks the gevura of Rabbi Akiva’s talmidim, and Yom Ha’atzmaut, which marks how our generation succeeded where they did not, all fall in Iyar.
The essence of the month, which has been hidden for so long, has now been revealed – it is a month of gevura, of Jewish pride and of fighting for what we believe in. When we mourn in the Omer, we are mourning the loss of that potential, the end of that gevura and when we rejoice on Lag Ba’Omer, Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim, we are rejoicing the gevura of our nation which is attainable in the month of Iyar.