A Message From Rabbi Sandler

Just yesterday we commemorated Lag B’omer, the 33rd day of the Omer period that runs from the second day of Passover to the beginning of Shavuot later this month. What happened on Lag B’omer? Was it another one of those, “We fought, we won, let’s eat!” moments? Not exactly…

One explanation for the significance of this day lies in the tradition that a plague leading to the deaths of 24,000 disciples of Rabbi Akiba ceased that day. Though the Talmud informs us the plague resulted from the students’ disrespectful treatment of each other, it tells us nothing about why the devastating plague suddenly came to an end.

Of course, none of what I have written about Rabbi Akiva, his students who died from a plague and the sudden disappearance of that plague is necessarily factually true. We have no sources independent of the Talmud that confirm the details. But I find it particularly telling that in the Talmud, destruction both of spiritual centers, like the Temple in Jerusalem, and of people, from a horrible plague, is laid at the feet of “disrespectful interaction” and worse.

When the Rabbis tied the destruction of the Temple and a devastating plague to the nature of human interaction, I doubt they meant to convey factual truths. But I do think they intended to share life truths and wanted us to glean something important and lasting from such monumentally – challenging moments.

Today’s corona virus “plague” is not caused by people’s disrespectful behavior toward each other. But, as I have suggested in several settings in recent weeks, this pandemic has encouraged all of us to look at our lives and priorities. Are these priorities from the past still “worthy priorities?” I have suggested that my own areas of focus have shifted in a seemingly contradictory manner that doesn’t trouble me. On the one hand, I am focusing on my local community. On the other hand, my perspective has shifted to universal concern because of all that we share with others. And perhaps most obvious, it has thrown into high relief the potentially devastating effects of “disrespectful interaction” which the Talmud identified as the cause of a plague.

Today that disrespectful interaction finds expression in rancor, both inside and outside the political realm, that says, “You and I don’t have an honest, yet respectful, disagreement. You are wrong (and often demeaned as “fake” and worse), and I am right! End of discussion!)

God-willing, with our right actions, widely disseminated by epidemiological experts, and the eventual presence of both medicines and a vaccine, the Coronavirus pandemic will ebb and eventually disappear. But the “plague” will only come to an end when we learn lessons the Rabbis sought to teach us many years ago – to approach people, even those with whom we disagree – in respectful and caring ways.