Lag Ba’omer lessons: From Bibi to Bieber

During the time of Rabbi Akiva, 24,000 of his students died from 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 levelץ

Lag Baomer bonfire 390  (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Lag Baomer bonfire 390
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
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 here.
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 bother me.
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 girl.
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 Bieber.
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.
Jones 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 way.
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 position.
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 wonderful.
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 University.