Monday, April 22nd | 14 Nisan 5784

May 12, 2020 7:51 am

Lag B’Omer Amid COVID-19: An Invitation to Civility

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avatar by Moshe Pitchon


Health workers move a patient wearing a face mask at the NYU Langone Hospital, during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in the Manhattan borough of New York City, May 3, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Eduardo Munoz.

Some 2,000 years ago, according to the Talmud, “Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students in an area of land that stretched from Gevat to Antipatris in Judea. It is taught that all of them died from diphtheria in the period from Passover until Shavuot.”

Lacking understanding of the natural causes of epidemics, a moral explanation about human behavior could serve to help to prevent another plague.

The Talmud says that 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died “because they did not treat each other with respect.” Intriguingly it adds: “And the world was desolate.”

It is most certainly a coincidence that the current terrible pandemic affecting the world happened at the same time of the year. And the correlation between Rabbi Akiva’s students’ behavior toward each other may have nothing to do with the plague’s cause. Yet the images (and the tweets) that will be studied by our descendants hundreds of years down the road will have them ask if our present catastrophe was not largely because we “did not treat each other with respect.”

What the Talmud is unequivocally saying is that lack of mutual respect brings desolation to the world.

COVID-19 may not have much to do with the US cultural and political wars; and certainly with Assad’s crimes in Syria; or violence in Hong Kong, Venezuela, and Chile; or the hundreds of tragic situations around the world where the true root cause of the problem is lack of respect for others.

Scholars have ventured that the Talmudic reference to the plague was not the result of naïveté as a euphemism for the violence committed by human beings. Probably, with that in mind, Jewish tradition eventually instituted a holiday to reflect on what can cause epidemics and bring desolation to the world.

They named the holiday Lag B’Omer. It is, in fact, an invitation to civility that is mostly lost in barbecues, bonfires, bows and arrows, and haircuts. Prevented as we are this year from just burning energy in large outdoor gatherings, we should explore what can change when we treat with respect those with whom we disagree.

Moshe Pitchon is the director of BY, a 21st century Judaism project. He has served as a rabbi in Latin America and the United States, and taught Jewish philosophy and biblical literature.

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