As the long-awaited roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine here in South Africa finally begins – after too long – we can dare to hope again for a return to some semblance of what our lives used to be before this pandemic. We have already seen the green shoots of a new world. Our children have returned to school and adjusted to the “new normal”. Our shuls are starting to hum with activity again. Businesses are beginning to recover. As our lives gradually return to a certain state of normality, we’re beginning to face up to just how difficult the past 15 months have been. The question is, how do we make up the ground 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 yeshiva 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 make technological advances that move the world forward. But it goes further. The Talmud cites a midrash that states before this world was created, there were many other worlds which G-d created and subsequently destroyed, and then rebuilt again.
From this midrash, says Rav Soloveitchik, we learn that there is a mitzvah not only to create, but 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 yeshivot after they were all but blotted out, such that today there are more people learning Torah that 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.
There are times when the road ahead is unclear, when we start to lose our way – when the difficulties we face as individuals and as communities and as humanity seem insurmountable. Lag B’Omer teaches us the great power we have to re-create. To rebuild in the face of calamity. To face down our challenges with strength and confidence. To create the world anew.
Now, as we emerge from the pandemic, let us, the South African Jewish community, come together in unity and optimism to re-create our own world. To reinvigorate our shuls and schools and all our precious institutions. To rebuild our businesses. To re-energise our families and relationships, and to reconnect with those with whom we’ve lost touch.
Of course, we still have a way to go before life can return to normal. And we need to remain vigilant with the health protocols. But it’s time for us to start re-creating what we have lost.
Rabbi Akiva did it then. We can do it now.