The message of Lag Ba'omer is that we can recreate the world anew

Rabbi Akiva did it then. We can do it now.

Orthodox Jews of the Satmar Hasidim celebrate Lag BaOmer in the village of Kiryas Joel (photo credit: MIKE SEGAR / REUTERS)
Orthodox Jews of the Satmar Hasidim celebrate Lag BaOmer in the village of Kiryas Joel
(photo credit: MIKE SEGAR / REUTERS)
How do we bear up to life’s most formidable challenges? What is our response to a crisis that affects us as individuals, as communities, as countries, and as a world?
This week we celebrated Lag Ba’omer. During the Omer, we remember the tragedy of the plague that struck down 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest sages of the Talmud. Rabbi Akiva was already an old man, but he had the courage to start again from the beginning. Lag Ba’omer is the day he restarted his yeshiva with just five students, and it was those five students who rekindled the fire of Torah and restored it to the Jewish people.
On Lag Ba’omer, the mourning of the Omer is put on hold as we celebrate Rabbi Akiva’s heroism, tenacity and strength in the face of adversity.
This power to rebound from a setback is learned from God Himself. The Talmud teaches that the mitzvah to “walk in the ways of God” means to emulate Him, specifically in terms of His compassion and kindness. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik says that this includes the mitzvah of creation itself. Just as God created the world, we are also called upon to create the world; to nurture flourishing families and societies, to build institutions and infrastructure and make medical and technological advances that move the world forward.
Rav Soloveitchik refers to a Midrash which says that before this world was created, there were many other worlds that God created and subsequently destroyed, and then rebuilt again.
From this Midrash, says Rav Soloveitchik, we learn that there is not only a mitzvah to create, but also a mitzvah to re-create after a period of destruction; to rebuild after setbacks. We do so on a personal level and we do so on a national level, drawing on God’s own example.
It is this spirit of renewal and rededication that has animated so much of Jewish history. We have witnessed this particularly in the years since the Holocaust, through the miraculous creation of the State of Israel, and the rebuilding of the great yeshivot after they were all but blotted out, such that today there are more people learning Torah than at any other time in our history. Together, these developments have led to a rebirth of Jewish life worldwide.
This is the message of Lag Ba’omer, of Rabbi Akiva who, against all odds, rebuilt Torah, and with it, the Jewish people. On this day, we celebrate the light of Torah, the sacred tradition and Divine values that give life to the Jewish people.
There are times when the road ahead is unclear, when we start to lose our way, when the difficulties we face as individuals, as communities and as humanity seem insurmountable.
Lag Ba’omer teaches us the great power we have to bounce back, to rebuild in the face of calamity, to create the world anew.
Rabbi Akiva did it then. We can do it now.

The writer is the chief rabbi of South Africa.