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Celebrating the Light of the Torah

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Sow your seed in the morning,
     and at evening let your hands not be idle,
for you do not know which will succeed,
     whether this or that,
     or whether both will do equally well.
— Ecclesiastes 11:6

This devotion is for the Jewish observance, Lag BaOmer, which begins at sundown on May 6th and continues through May 7th.

Every year, on the 33rd day of the “counting of the Omer” Jews around the world celebrate a holiday called Lag BaOmer, literally, the 33rd of the Omer. The main feature of this holiday is the bonfire celebrations held on the eve of the holiday. The holiday can be felt most profoundly in Israel where, starting from the end of Passover, schoolchildren can be seen collecting all types of wood, from twigs to old shipping pallets to broken pieces of furniture. On the eve of Lag BaOmer, the country lights up with bonfires, some of them multiple stories high!

What is the significance of this day?

It starts with a man named Rabbi Akiva who lived in the late first century. Rabbi Akiva was the foremost Torah scholar in his day and had an enormous following of 24,000 students. To them he transmitted the deep secrets of the Bible and the Jewish tradition. But one year, during this time period called “counting of the Omer,” they all died, every last one of them. The last death occurred on the 33rd day of the Omer counting. But that’s not why we celebrate. They stopped dying only because none was left!

What did Akiva do? Did he seclude himself in mourning the death of his dear students? Did he sink into despair at the loss of his life’s work? No. He went to the south of Israel and found five new students and began again. In Ecclesiastes we read, “Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let your hands not be idle . . .” Rabbi Akiva explained the verse as meaning that one should teach disciples while still young and continue teaching even in old age “ . . . for you do not know which will succeed.” In Akiva’s case the students of his youth all died out, but from those five students in his old age we have all his teachings and traditions that exist today.

The most prominent of those five students of Akiva was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. The last day of his life was the 33rd day of the Omer counting. On that day, tradition teaches that a great fire surrounded his house as he revealed all his knowledge and wisdom to his students. The fire symbolizes the light of the Torah and the survival of this light is what we celebrate on this day.

The story of this holiday teaches us to persevere even when we suffer setbacks. Rabbi Akiva could have given up after he suffered the loss of his students. But he persevered, and because of that, a treasure trove of divine knowledge was saved.

Never give up when things get rough and life looks bleak. Light a new fire and begin anew.

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