Today marks 4 weeks – almost a month – since we began counting the Omer for this year of 5776. The Torah portion for this Shabbat, Emor, established the practice of counting the Omer that has continued for over 2500 years, maybe 3000. Lag Ba-omer, the 33rd day of this period, which falls next Thursday, is the only day during this time when traditional Jews will hold celebrations of any kind. Day 33 was identified in the Talmud as the time when a plague ended that had decimated most of the students of Rabbi Akiba. One of Akiba’s disciples, Shimon bar Yochai, reportedly gained deep insights about God on the 33rd day of the Omer one year. Bonfires are lit around Israel in Rabbi Shimon’s honor, and many visit his grave at Meron.
The section of the Talmud which speaks of the plague that fell upon Rabbi Akiba’s students also gives a reason for the coming of that fatal mass sickness. Here is that passage ( http://halakhah.com/yebamoth/yebamoth_62.html ) from Yevamot 62b: “It was said that R. Akiba had twelve thousand pairs of disciples…and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. One Rabbi taught: All of them died between Passover and Shavuot. The world remained desolate until R. Akiba came to our Masters in the South" (one of them being Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai).
Whether this really happened or not, there is something very disturbing about the reason for this plague – disrespect - that fell upon Rabbi Akiba’s students. The traditions that developed surrounding the 33rd day didn’t even begin to give a remedy for widespread disrespect to assure that a lesson would be learned from this sad event.
Or maybe it is just that the remedy is embedded somewhere else in Jewish literature. As it turns out, that may be the case. One of my favorite passages from the Midrash notes that Rabbi Akiba cited “Love your neighbor as yourself” as the fundamental principle of the Torah. Was that an answer to the devastating illness that came upon his students? Perhaps. And how did that disrespect run so rampant? The Talmud is silent on that aspect of this ancient tragedy.
We know all too well how disrespect can spread from witnessing the conflicts of our own time. A Princeton University online guide to personal behavior features a section about “calling out disrespect” ( https://umatter.princeton.edu/respect/calling-out-disrespect ). It suggests what disrespect can look like in the present day:
· Using words that degrade, demean, or objectify
· Making statements that attack a person based on one or more social identities
· Writing and endorsing offensive comments posted in social media
· Turning away when someone is asking for or needs help
· Deciding not to enforce policies meant to protect our community from harm
· Operating in a way that consistently ignores a group of people or minimizes their collective experiences
· Choosing to destroy another person's property
The Princeton Respect guide explains: “If someone does or says something that you think is disrespectful (even if you aren't 100% sure) it’s important to be open about your disapproval. If no one says anything, even if the majority disagree with what has been said or done, a message is sent that this kind of behavior is acceptable in the community.”
Disrespect can spread easily, as we have seen in expressions related to the 2016 Presidential campaign. We have recently witnessed two Jewish columnists in open conflict. One who supports one particular candidate has called another a “Renegade Jew” for advocating the recruitment of a major figure for a third party run for the presidency in the upcoming election. Jewish reporters who have written articles critical of certain individuals central to the campaign have faced a barrage of anti-Semitic comments and tweets that are well outside the realm of constructive criticism. Some of those responses from the public have at least matched, if not surpassed, the worst expressions of hatred against Jews in the history of our country. And I am not exaggerating.
Using words carefully is very much a part of the Jewish heritage. Our tradition does not condone nor encourage disrespect. It is not about being politically correct. From a Jewish perspective, we are called upon to follow the teachings that have been passed down to us which create a community conducive to cooperation, even when ideological strife is abundant and pervasive.
The holidays listed in Leviticus Chapter 23 all bear messages that point to respect and civility. Shabbat is a day of rest and peace that we can translate into action throughout each week. Passover is about winning and preserving freedom, fighting for the freedom of others, and caring for the stranger because we were strangers in Egypt. Shavuot, the holiday of first fruits and the time of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, reminds us to return again and again to our teachings and values, poring over them to the point where we will practice the central precepts of Judaism that will lead to respect, hope and peace. The holiday of Sukkot teaches that the path to freedom may take a long time to traverse, and that our existence in the wilderness along the journey to that freedom may be fragile and uncertain until we reach our destination. But reach that ultimate goal of cooperative and respectful community we must, because the alternative is the crumbling of a shared identity as fellow members of a people, or fellow citizens of a neighborhood or nation, or as traveling companions with all people as we move forward towards the future of humanity.So as we continue to count the Omer, let us also count the ways that we can maintain respect in our conversations, in our treatment of all of our neighbors, and in the ways in which we arrive at a vision for our country and our world. “Out of many, one” is a phrase that can still resonate with us if we are committed to listening to and understanding each other. It is through the unity that we forge with those who agree with us – as well as with those who disagree with us – that we can infuse meaning into the freedom that is ours and gain a feeling of enduring satisfaction with the cooperation and peace that we may yet achieve.