18 Iyar 5781 – 33rd Day of the Omer

April 30, 2021

As a product of our Reform camping system, I have had since childhood a fascination and a fondness for archery. One of my earliest memories, probably from about the time I was fourteen years old, attending the URJ Greene Family in Bruceville, Texas, searching through shrubs and small trees with my counselor for just the right branch from which to fashion a bow. The right one found and cut, ends notched and string secure, my counselor along with my friends, would then make arrows out of dowel and use a cardboard box for target practice in the fields.  Something happened that summer later in the season (I learned that someone got hurt with an arrow) and we no longer had archery.

Fast forward many years, as I serve on Faculty at URJ Camp Harlam in the Poconos, we have archery with a more rigid system of guidance to ensure safety. I still like trying my hand at this skill. There is, ironically, a natural connection between an archer’s bow and a rabbi’s study, the drawing of a bowstring and the learning of Torah. It is not a connection I would have known as a child. I was drawn more to stories of Robin Hood than to stories of the rabbis. It was many years later that I learned of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, known as the RaShbY, and of the bow and arrow as a symbol associated with Lag B’omer, the thirty-third day in the counting of the Omer as we move from Passover to Shavuot.

Wanted by the Romans for sedition, Rabbi Shimon and his son fled to a cave. It was against the law, on pain of death, to teach and to learn Torah, let alone from a wanted man. Rabbi Shimon’s students devised a plan by which they continued to learn with their teacher. They would go out into the fields with bows and arrows, appearing to the Romans as hunters, and then make their way slowly to their master’s cave. So the bow and arrow came to be transformed from a symbol of violence, a weapon in the hands of a warrior or hunter, to a symbol of dedication to Torah in the hands of a scholar.

Over time, Lag B’omer came to be called the “scholar’s holiday.” The mitzvah to count the Omer is given in this week’s Torah portion, Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23). Through rabbinic interpretation, we come to understand the counting to begin on the second day of Passover, continuing for forty-nine days, the fiftieth day being a full holiday. A holiday unnamed in the Torah, the rabbis sought to connect that day which comes to be Shavuot, meaning weeks, with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, an event without a holiday. Originally of agricultural significance only, hardly insignificant in itself, counting the days from one harvest to the next comes also to be a counting of days from Egypt to Sinai, investing our freedom with new purpose and meaning. Through the span of Jewish history, numerous tragedies came to be associated with the period of “the counting”. By tradition, for a number of reasons, mourning was
transformed into joy on the thirty-third day of counting. In Israel, bonfires are lit and bows and arrows can be seen in the hands of children on Lag B’omer. The word Lag is derived simply from the letters lamed and gimmel, whose combined numerical value is thirty-three.

Many years ago, during my first year of studies while living in Jerusalem, I was invited to a Bar Mitzvah reception to be held on Lag B’omer. Memories stirred of long ago, I joined others as we made our way to a field, and there among the shrubs and trees someone found the right branch from which to fashion a bow for a young man called to the Torah and celebrating it on Lag B’omer. Of a bow, and of one called to Torah, the link is intrinsic. The root of Torah and “to shoot,” as in directing an arrow to its mark, is the same, yud, resh, hey. Yoreh comes to mean to teach or instruct, to direct, to show the way. It is the purpose of Torah in our lives, as we are shown the way each day to Sinai. The one who guides, the teacher, morah or moreh, is of the same root, and so too, parents, horim, a parent, horeh, as in the one who guides the search for the right branch, the search itself the mark and goal impressed forever upon a tender heart.

Today is Lag B’omer. May it be a time of quiet transformation, as in the passing of the bow from warrior’s hand to scholar’s, and from leaden clouds to brilliant hues, as the bow inverted in the sky, a symbol of war turned to one of peace, a covenant between heaven and earth, but upon earth still waiting. And of personal transformation, may we come from the counting to the harvest, days of challenges turned to days of joy, and of direction found.