Sefirah is the seven week period between Pesach and Shavuot. During part of this time in early spring, for 33 days, Jews observe a period of mild mourning. Primarily, we avoid live concerts, we put off weddings, and (if you're a guy) you grow a beard like a mourner.
The reason is to be found in the Talmud, Tractate Yevamot 62b:
It was said that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbatha to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect...A Tanna taught: "All of them died between Passover and Shavuot". Rabbi Hama ben Abba (or it might have been Rabbi Hiyya ben Abin) said: "All of them died a cruel death." What was it? Rabbi Nahman replied: "Askarah."In my ill-spent and dissolute youth (smile), I must confess that I just couldn't get into the mode of mourning. I mean it's springtime - springtime! The world is coming alive again! Birds are a-twitter (back when 'twitter' only meant a melodious avian articulation.) Trees are in blossom, love is in the air, everything is fresh and new and vivid and just so...so breathtakingly beautiful.
And every spring I am reminded of a line in Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King: “Every twenty years or so the earth renews itself in young maidens," a renewal that undoubtedly occurs, as do the crocuses, daffodils and tulips, in the spring.
So, as I say, I didn't understand. To compound my confusion, the reasoning of the Talmud was very obscure. 24,000 students? What does that even mean, for one guy to have 24,000 students? How does one teacher relate in a meaningful way to 24,000 disciples? (Even today, the Mir Yeshivah in Jerusalem, one of the largest in the world with hundreds of rabbis on staff, only has about 7,500 students.)
And what does it mean that they died because they dissed one another? We're talking about the disciples of Rabbi Akiva here, arguably one of the greatest rabbis in all of Jewish history. And they all died of a cruel death called "askarah?" And the plague magically stopped on one specific day? And why do we traditionally celebrate that day, the 33rd day of the count, with picnics and bonfires and archery?
None of it made any sense to me. How could it be that the Sages of Israel were so out of touch with the palpable, vital reality of springtime that they ordained a period of sadness and mourning? Didn't they look out the window? The incongruity of sefirah and spring was screaming at me.
And then my wife's only brother was killed by a drunk driver.
Michael Allen Ziegler, z"l, was killed during sefirah. He was only 24, single, in the springtime of his life. And to compound the pain, he was killed by his best friend, who walked away from the twisted wreck uninjured.
And then I began to understand.
I began to understand the futility of trying to comfort an inconsolable wife. I began to understand how the blossoming flowers that spring held no solace; indeed, in their very beauty they seemed to mock Michael's death.
I began to understand how the beauty of spring is fleeting when weighed against the inevitability, the permanence, of death.
The Sages, in their wisdom, were counseling temperance in enjoying the beauties of spring. 'Soak up the loveliness of spring,' they seemed to be saying, 'but don't be overcome by the seductions of youth, by fleeting beauty, no matter how immediate or palpable it may seem in the moment.'
The historical fact is that Rabbi Akiva's "students" were actually the warriors in Bar Kochba's rebellion. Like Uncle Mike, they were in the prime of their lives - youthful, idealistic and beautiful. The "cruel death" his disciples suffered was the decisive military rout by the Roman Legions in the fields of Beitar. Those brave young men died in battle, and the battle - and their lives - ended on a single day in 135 CE. Also ended was any hope of Jewish political sovereignty for the next 18 very long and dark centuries.
So that explains the archery and bonfires used to commemorate Lag B'Omer, the 33rd day of the count (which is this coming Thursday, BTW.)
But the Gemara couldn't tell the real story, could it? Not with the Roman censors looking on and the fears of reprisal against the pockets of remaining Jews. So it speaks in hints and ambiguities.
With wiser eyes, it must be said that the loss of our national sovereignty and personal freedoms are indeed things worth mourning over.
So yeah, go sit under a tree in the park and enjoy the gifts of spring...but tuck a Pirkei Avot (Wisdom of the Sages) under one arm, too.