Thursday, May 7, 2015

Responding With All Your Might: A (Post-) Lag Ba'Omer Thought

Lag Ba'Omer*, the 33rd day of the counting of the omer (the 49-day period from Pesah to Shavuot), marks a joyous occasion in the midst of an anguished period of Jewish history. The Talmud (Bavli Yevamot 62b) tells us that this period was marked by a plague in the 2nd century CE which took the lives of 24,000 students of the great sage Rabbi Akiva. Only a handful survived, among them Rabbi Shim'on bar Yohai, considered by some to be the father of Jewish mysticism. As such, Lag Ba'Omer has become in recent years a celebration of Shim'on bar Yohai: tens of thousands of Haredim march from Tzefat, in northern Israel, to Mount Meron, where bar Yohai is traditionally thought to be buried, and light bonfires to honor his legacy.

... holiday is known as Lag b ' Omer . The mourning practices of the omer

I was once at the grave of Rabbi Shim'on bar Yohai, not on Lag Ba'Omer, and experienced there the most peculiar behavior that I have ever witnessed in the context of tefillah / Jewish prayer. It was an otherwise ordinary afternoon, and there was a standard pick-up minhah (brief afternoon service) going on nearby, attended by a handful of guys who seemed to be from the same Haredi sect.

They arrived at the end, and one of them began saying the Mourner's Kaddish, the prayer recited by those who have recently suffered a loss or are recalling the annual observance of a relative's passing. They came to the congregational response, usually similarly intoned in a spoken-word form - no music, marking the mourner's sadness. And then something truly wacky happened: all of the assembled began to SHOUT WITH ALL THEIR MIGHT, "Amen! Yehei shemei rabba mevarakh le'alam ul'alemei alemaya!" "May God's great name be praised throughout all time!"

I think I jumped. I had never heard anything like that.

A few years later, as I was studying liturgy seriously at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I encountered a real gem of Talmudic wisdom, and experienced a brief moment of revelation (Bavli Shabbat 119b):
אמר רבי יהושע בן לוי: כל העונה אמן יהא שמיה רבא מברך בכל כחו ־ קורעין לו גזר דינו
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught: One who says, "Amen! Yehei shemei rabba mevarakh..." with all his strength, any [negative Divine] decree against him is torn up.
In other words, if you scream this line when responding to a mourner, you get a whole lot of Heavenly credit, and a guaranteed place in the world to come. I realized, in retrospect, that this is exactly what was going on during that otherwise ordinary minhah: they were taking this piece of wisdom literally.

I do not necessarily recommend shouting in synagogue. Depending on the congregation, the reactions by others might vary from discomfort to shock to bodily removing you from the building. But we might want to think, not only as we respond to those in mourning but throughout our tefillah, about Rabbi Shim'on bar Yohai, about the bonfires of the soul, and about pouring all our might into forming those words of prayer.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

* "Lag", ל''ג, is not a word but a number: the Hebrew letter lamed has a numerical value of 30 and the gimmel a value of 3.

1 comment:

  1. What you say leads me to wonder: Perhaps we may consider the intensity of kavanah when we pray, paradoxically finding that very quiet place at the center of our essence and directing all our energy and focus there, to be the spiritual expression of "shouting."

    We shall all miss your thought-provoking (and sometimes politically provocative) bi-weekly sermons as we wish you and your family mazel and success with your new congregation.

    Elissa Schiff
    ps: I selected "Anonymous" because can't figure out how to navigate the other choices.