I feel a conflict every year when we come to Sefirat Ha’Omer. These are the days that immediately followed the resurrection of Yeshua.
They are days when we recall how the Mashiach conquered death, walked among his disciples, and renewed their hope. They were days of such immense excitement for the apostles. The resurrected Yeshua set their vision during these days. They turned from mourning and fear to confident soldiers of the Mashiach during these days—prepared to spread the message of the gospel around the world. These are the days of the ascension.
And that’s just one aspect. These days followed the exodus from Egypt and led to the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
Our beloved modern Israel was founded during these days. We celebrate that modern miracle for the Jewish people each year, during these days, on Yom Ha’atzmaut. But we are told to mourn during these days. Really? What’s the significance of that?
The story goes like this: There was a sizable Jewish population living in Israel up until around sixty years after the destruction of the Temple. The Romans exiled many more than these after the destruction. Still, a community of some strength remained in the towns and villages of the land of Israel. Our greatest sages devoted themselves to teaching Torah and keeping Judaism alive—all the while evading Roman persecution and arrest. Among their ranks was Rabbi Akiva, a man who rose during his middle age from being a shepherd in the fields to being a leading sage with thousands of students. Tragically, one year, 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples perished during the time between Passover and Shavu’ot. The memory of the destruction of Jerusalem was still fresh, and this tragedy all but spelled the end for what little strength the disciples of the sages retained.
A few short years later, a failed revolt against the Romans cleared nearly the rest of the Jewish people out of the land of Israel. The Romans flattened and plowed over the Temple Mount, and our exile was complete.
So we mourn during these days.
We’re told that the plague on Rabbi Akiva’s disciples was a result of their disrespect for one another. It echoes the common refrain that the Second Holy Temple was destroyed due to baseless hatred. I hear in that connection that we are not only mourning Rabbi Akiva’s disciples. We are mourning every moment of the last 2000 years in exile—an extension of the flames that scorched our Temple until this very day.
There was hope, however. Rabbi Akiva set himself to rebuilding. He began teaching five new disciples whose names came to be shining stars in the revitalization of Judaism. Perhaps the greatest of those five was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. On the 33rd day of the Omer (Lag Ba’Omer), many take a break from mourning and celebrate his life and the beauty found in his teachings.
Still, I feel a conflict. Where is Yeshua in all of this? During this period, shouldn’t I be celebrating the amazing hope assured in his resurrection?
On my way home last night on the subway I was reflecting on Matthew 12. A friend had just been teaching on this passage, and I have been mulling over new thoughts all day. Yeshua’s efforts to lead the nation to repentance are coming to a turning point in this chapter. The nation’s leadership repeatedly tests, questions, and mocks Yeshua. The very end to persecution and pain in our world was standing right in front of them, but that generation couldn’t see it. In those moments they suffered from baseless hatred, and it blinded them from seeing the full redemption in their days. Yeshua caps off the chapter with these words:
The impure spirit, after leaving a person, wanders through dry places seeking a place to rest but does not find one. Then it says, “I will return to my home from where I left.” It comes and finds it cleared, swept, and decorated. Afterward, it goes out and takes with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they come and live there, and the end of that man is worse than his beginning. So it will also be for this evil generation. (Mattai 12:43-45 DHE)
Yeshua painted an ominous picture of what would happen after the nation rejected him. He was the one who came to send out unclean spirits and lead Klal Yisra’el to repentance—to a house swept and put in order. But in rejecting Yeshua, that generation was left empty of its steward, and they became vulnerable to greater tragedies than before. Subsequently, our people came to see the destruction of the Temple, the persecution of the sages and apostles, and the exile that extends to us today.
The rejection of the Mashiach came to a head at the beginning of the days of the Omer.
We mourn during these days, but we also celebrate.
I see the period of the Omer as an in-between time. It is a season that foreshadows the final redemption while we are very much still in the pain of exile. I mourn along with my people. I don’t shave, I don't dance, and I avoid music. Even as disciples of Yeshua, we stand in the exile with the whole of God’s people. We endure all the pain of this world that this exile includes. From here, we eagerly await the return of the Mashiach. However, there are days and moments of joy that are sparks of light during the Omer: the day of the resurrection, the day of Yeshua’s ascension, Yom Ha’atzmut, and Lag Ba’Omer. Those are times for celebration in the midst of mourning—sparks of light in the exile. On those days, you might catch me dancing a bit with a playful smile on my face and my hope in Mashiach shining through:
You, too, will now be grieving, but I will return and see you, and your heart will rejoice, and nothing will take your happiness away from you. (Yochanan 16:22 DHE)