SPOILER ALERT: I WILL BE EXPLORING THESE THEMES DURING OUR SHABBAT MORNING SERVICE THIS WEEKEND.
I'm curious: have you paused recently to do a personal mental health check in? (It's always a healthy thing to do periodically.)
I raise the question now for two reasons....First of all: for the graduating seniors that are part of our Etanu community, now is an obvious 'season of tension' as you navigate the transition from college life to "the real world." Job/graduate school/new living arrangements/etc all have to be dealt with. It's only natural to feel anxious during this transition (or possibly even sad if things have been particularly difficult). The inventory provides a more formal mechanism to enable you to monitor how you're doing.
More broadly, I raise the question of how everyone is doing, and feeling, because we Jews have always associated the springtime with....sadness.
It's strange: springtime is all about re-birth, hope, and happiness. Well: that's true in our wider Western culture. It's just not true for Jews.
The four and a half weeks following Passover (a period that we're about to reach the end of this weekend) have always been a period associated with grief and mourning in Judaism. Instead of celebrating we're supposed to be un-celebrating during this time of year. Traditional Jews let their hair and beards grow out (so as to not worry about their physical appearance), and they avoid scheduling weddings (so as to not subject their guests to the happiness of a celebration) - all in order to mimic Jewish mourning practices! Because....we are supposed to be sad right now.
Why? Here are a few traditional reasons:
- Some rabbis suggested that this is the season when our ancestors were most affected by the destruction of the Second Temple (in the year 70). Just as the barley and wheat were making their initial appearances, our people were reminded that there was no temple where they could bring the biblically-commanded agricultural sacrifices.
- Others associate this season of loss with a famous story in the Talmud, which notes that Rabbi Akiba – the great second century rabbi, lost thousands of students to a devastating plague during the first few weeks after Passover.
- Others read that story as code – that his students didn’t die from plague, but rather heroically died in the Bar Kochba Rebellion: the last courageous stand of our ancestors before falling, once and for all, to the Roman Empire.
- Speaking of the Romans, contemporary anthropologists remind us of the ancient Roman belief that the spirits of the dead returned to earth every springtime. Thus Romans avoided marriage during this season. (We might have copied the practice from them!)
On top of all of these "traditional" reasons for Jews to be sad around now, we have some serious things going on in our world...none of which is particularly comforting or hopeful:
- The economy is still pulling down far too many in our community, even as economists insist that there are verifiable signs of recovery.
- We still live in fear of terror – and we continue to wage two wars overseas - even though Osama bin Laden has been killed.
- We watch in disbelief as yet another year goes by in which Israelis and Palestinians fail to find a way to talk to one another, and make progress on the significant list of issues that continue to lie before them – blocking the path to peace.
- We live in a state of frustration and concern because the partisan divisions that affect our state and federal governments are preventing our leaders from compromising and making the hard but necessary decisions about our fiscal future.
- And we live with regret that leaders like former Gov. Schwarzenegger and former IMF Managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn made terrible choices, violating promises they had made to their families, while also failing to live up to the expectations we had of them as worthy role models for our children.
Like our ancestors of old: even as spring blooms all around us, we are weighed down by sadness and despair.
Yet our tradition provides a small measure of relief: the 33rd day following Passover (known as Lag B'Omer) has always been a day of joy and release. It is a day on the Jewish calendar that gives us permission to not be weighed down by our own personal troubles, and the tzorus of the world around us. Instead: Lag B'Omer is a day to reconnect: with the people that are important to us, and the incredible natural beauty that surrounds us. Weddings and all manner of celebrations are permitted on Lag B'Omer (even haircuts!). DON'T WORRY, BE HAPPY is the message of the day.
Here's the good news: this Sunday is Lag B'Omer!
My hope and prayer to you: as we all embark on the beginning of our summers (and - for our graduating seniors: the beginning of the rest of your lives!), is that you never lose hope. That you always have the ability to experience the world with open eyes and open hearts...to find beauty everywhere: in the presence of friends and loving partners, in nature, and in the satisfaction of helping others. In doing so, I hope you'll come to appreciate that sadness and suffering are not absolute. Lag B'Omer is a passionate reminder from our tradition that no sadness is forever. There is always a break from whatever troubles us. A new beginning is always around the corner.