It’s that time of year again. Kids with “borrowed” shopping carts full of wood
rush by. The smell of bonfire smoke fills the air.
Lag Ba’omer is
I have grown accustomed to the bonfires (and the smoke) which will
accompany the onset of Lag Ba’omer this Saturday night. I often wonder how many
of the revelers even know that the fires are in honor of the great sage and
author of the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (a disciple of Rabbi Akiva), who
according to tradition passed away on Lag Ba’omer. But that doesn’t really
What puzzles me more is the main reason behind the
celebrations on Lag Ba’omer. According to the Talmud (and Wikipedia), during the
time of Rabbi Akiva, 24,000 of his students died of a divinely sent plague
during the counting of the Omer. The Talmud goes on to say that this was because
they did not show proper respect to one another, befitting their level. Jews
celebrate Lag Ba’omer, the 33rd day of the count, as the traditional day that
this plague ended.
But how could these great men, scholars in their own
right, the students of Rabbi Akiva, the same Rabbi Akiva who preached “Veahavta
lere’acha kamocha,” “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) and said
of that verse, “This is an essential principle of the Torah,” have stumbled with
regard to this vital precept? How could Rabbi Akiva’s disciples, of all people,
have lacked respect toward their scholarly colleagues? A possible answer
occurred to me during US President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Israel. In an
obvious attempt to endear himself to the Israeli public, as well as to the Jews
back home in the US, Obama continually referred to Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu not as “Mr. Prime Minister” or “Prime Minister Netanyahu,” but rather
as “my friend Bibi,” or simply “Bibi.”
Some might think the casual
demeanor the US President exuded (which included his removal of his jacket when
strolling on the tarmac, with Netanyahu quickly following suit) cute, but what
if the shoe had been on the other foot? Can you imagine the American uproar if
on a trip to Washington, DC, the prime minister of Israel referred to the US
president simply as “Barack,” or even worse, by his old pre-college nickname,
“Barry”? Obama might be able to get away with calling Netanyahu “Bibi,” but when
it comes to the US president, nothing short of “President Obama” or “Mr.
President” would be deemed acceptable.
Another story that appeared in the
news recently involved teen pop sensation Justin Bieber. During a brief stopover
on his recent European tour, Bieber visited the Anne Frank House, the Amsterdam
museum dedicated to preserving the memory of the young Holocaust victim who
chronicled her ordeal hiding from the Nazis during World War II in The Diary of
a Young Girl. Frank died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945 at the
age of 15.
According to the Anne Frank House’s Facebook page, like many
visitors to the museum, the pop star left a message in the guest book, writing:
“Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great
Hopefully she would have been a belieber.”
For those who are
not members of the Justin Bieber fan club, a “belieber” is a fan of Justin
The cringe-worthy comment has caused an uproar in the press and
on the museum’s Facebook page, with well over 1,300 people commenting on the
post thus far, the reactions ranging from “vile” to “shocking” to calling the
multiplatinum- selling artist a “shallow doofus.”
These episodes cause me
to recall my first day in the Israeli army. At the start of basic training, new
recruits are taught how to respectfully address their commanding officers.
Maintaining “distance” is important in the Israeli army, as most of the
commanding officers are only slightly older than their subordinates. When I was
inducted as a new immigrant in the IDF, I was older than both the recruits and
the officers by several years, but still respected the distance the officers
enforced. Only on the last evening of basic training did the officers “break
distance” and ease the restrictions, allowing soldiers to address them in a
casual manner and call them by their first names.
It seems to me that
what Israeli society lacks today is this type of distance. Most of us who grew
up in the Diaspora addressed our teachers by their last names (Mr.
or Mrs. Smith), and in many cases we didn’t even know their first names. Nobody
would dream of calling a teacher by their first name, as some students in Israel
today do. The same went for other people in authority: rabbis, doctors,
professors, authority figures and older people in general were always addressed
in a respectable way, Mr./Mrs./Ms., “Sir” or “Ma’am,” or by their title. There
was none of the familiarity so prevalent today.
Perhaps that’s why
distance must be hammered home so hard in the IDF. Many of the Israeli-born
recruits are simply ill-prepared to address those in authority in a respectful
The same is true at home. I have seen many cases where there is
little or no distance between parent and child. Fortunately, I myself was not
allowed to fall into that bad habit. Whenever I would get too silly or
disrespectful around my father he would sharply remind me, “I am not your
friend!” and I would quickly adjust my behavior. Many young people today should
do the same.
A sense of distance, or respect, is required when addressing
another head of state, and Obama knows that. Repeatedly calling Netanyahu by his
nickname lessens their respect for one other.
Contrary to the affection
and closeness Obama was attempting to show, the two men are not “friends,”
“buddies” or “amigos” – they are world leaders and should always be addressed,
and address each other, in a respectful manner, befitting their title and
Anne Frank is more than just a young teenage girl; she has
become a symbol. Associating Anne Frank with the nickname of teenage fans of
Justin Beiber cheapens her memory and the memory of the millions of other Jews
who were killed during the Holocaust. There needs to be some respectful distance
between the two.
So perhaps this was the trap that the students of Rabbi
Akiva fell into. Perhaps they became too chummy with their fellow pupils, who
were their colleagues. Perhaps in their daily, intense study of Torah together
they became too close to one another and did not leave any distance, which
caused them to lack respect for one another.
If one takes the analogy of
fire, which is quite appropriate for Lag Ba’omer, fire can be
It provides heat, light, warmth, etc.
But if one gets
too close to the flames – not maintaining enough respectful distance – one gets
burned.The writer has an MA in creative writing from Bar-Ilan