I can still feel myself sitting in the back seat of our station wagon, the dog by my side, the plants in the wayback, as we pulled out of the driveway of the only home I ever knew. We were moving from New Jersey to what seemed like a foreign country…small-town Connecticut. At the time, I had no sense of where I was going and no desire to look toward the future. All my 7-year-old self could experience was the beauty, connectedness, and sense of home that I felt from the very place we were leaving. It took time, not an insignificant amount of it, to long for a new story, to see a new life.
Today is Lag Ba-Omer, the 33rd day of the counting. The most well-known stories of this day have to do with (1) the birth and death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai and his revealing of the hidden secrets of Torah or alternatively and (2) the conclusion of the plague that killed thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students for not respecting one another. I’m most moved by a third teaching. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev teaches that after the Israelites experienced God’s string of miracles at the time of the redemption from Egypt, on the 33rd day of the counting, the people of Israel began to experience a longing for the Holy Torah. He writes, “Until the 33rd day after the Exodus the people were still primarily under the influence of the events accompanying the redemption, whereas from that time on, they were under the impending revelation of God’s Torah at Mount Sinai.” (Kedushat Levi, Parashat Vayetze). Lag Ba-Omer is the day we celebrate this new orientation of the people of Israel. They were no longer recipients of God’s miracles but actors in a new story, longing to reimagine their relationship with God through the revelation of Torah and to see a future of possibility.
More than halfway through the 49-day journey from Egypt to Sinai, from Pesah to Shavuot, we stop to celebrate the Israelites’ change of perspective and their determination to create a new reality. We too are on such a journey of living in our own Mitzrayim (Egypt, but literally a narrow place), a place of physical isolation, mourning, fear, and emotional languishing—not to mention what has been exposed in our country during this time. Amongst all the loss, springtime has arrived, vaccinations are available to all those above the age of 16, summer camps are intending to open and we are inviting members of BJ in limited capacity to pray again in our Sanctuary. Small steps and miracles that only several months ago, would have never seemed possible. And yet, a larger question beckons: How might we faithfully move into an uncertain and unknown future and not merely orient to the normal that we once knew and often miss? There’s no going back.
So while at age 7 in that moment sitting in the back seat of the car I wished I could have grabbed the steering wheel and return home; so too did the Israelites long for the predictability and certainty of Mitzrayim and the miracles of the redemption that happened there. For the last 32 days of the counting, we have marked the journey from where we’ve been, what we knew and have left behind, one day at a time. But today on this 33rd day, we celebrate our capacity for imagination and for the openness to what might come. We prepare to receive the future. Today is the day.