Ask the rabbi

May 20, 2019 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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IS RELIGION A GOOD THING?

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Why shouldn’t it be?

It teaches there is a God and people should come close to Him through prayer and do His will through ethics. It has rituals that symbolise basic values.

If religion didn’t exist, it would have to be invented.

A wonderful book, “1066 And All That”, tells the story of England with a smile. The book comments on events, “That was a Good Thing” (or it wasn’t…). Presumably it thought religion was A Good Thing.

But the more I think about it the less I am inclined to call religion A Good Thing.

I think of two cries, both heard at racist incidents. The place doesn’t matter. Both are tragic wherever they are.

One cry is: “O my God! O my God!” The other, “This is for Allah”.

This cry comes every time extremists mow down harmless men, women and children. Like vultures on the attack? Worse. To call them vultures is an insult to the vultures.

“This is for God”? If God really wants this I’d rather be an atheist. If these are really God’s policemen I’d rather not be a believer.

“This is for God”? I prefer the Jewish idea: “Let them forget Me but live by My Torah”.

When God offered the nations His law they asked, “What does Your Torah say?”

One answer: “My Torah says, ‘Don’t kill!’” Some nations said that wasn’t for them. Some were told, “Don’t rob, commit adultery, pervert truth”. They said, “That’s not for us”.

Those who accepted the Torah were told, “Love your neighbour, ease his burden, show him compassion, bind up his wounds”.

They weren’t angels. They weren’t perfect. They didn’t always meet up to the heights of ethics, but they aspired to.

They didn’t live by the sword or make others die by it. God told them to drop their swords and cry for others’ pain. His word mattered more than the war cries.

Those who cry from the pain wreaked by the self-appointed avengers call, “O my God, O my God”. The cry is not abstract theology but real suffering.

They cry for the loving Parent to pick them up and kiss them better.

The Psalmist says, “Though others forsake me, God will take me up”. If only!

The Almighty must be thoroughly fed up with those who claim to work in His name.

“You think you’re acting for Me?” He says; “If you really loved Me you’d love My children! If I really mattered to you, you’d talk less about Me but fix My world!”

MOURNING & LAG BA’OMER

Q. I have two questions concerning Lag Ba’Omer: Why is the Counting of the Omer a time of mourning? Why is the mourning broken on Lag Ba’Omer?

A. There is a popular theory that links it with the students of Rabbi Akiva who died at the time of the Bar Kochba revolt.

The most explicit reference to their death is the Mishnah in Y’vamot 61b and the Gemara to that passage.

How many died, it asks? 12,000 pairs of students. Why did they die? Because they did not treat each other with respect. When did they die? Between Pesach and Shavu’ot. How did they die? From “ask’ra”, a choking disease.

In other versions of the story the numbers of victims differ and the reason for the deaths is expressed differently.

The exact nature of “ask’ra” is also debated, though the general consensus is that it was a punishment for evil talk.

How does all of this bear on the Jewish people as a whole?

Any death is a tragedy, and the rabbinic tradition of Rabbi Akiva is regarded so highly that a tragedy in his student group must have left an impact on Torah study.

But was their death a national event to the extent that the whole Jewish people should observe it? And if it did warrant widespread mourning, why is the practice not known before the late Middle Ages?

The Shulchan Aruch helps us (Orach Chayyim 493) by pointing out that our people suffered many calamities at this time of the year; the blow to Jewish learning in Rabbi Akiva’s time could therefore have been chosen as a symbol of them all.

But once we bear in mind that Rabbi Akiva was the great champion of the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans, we realise that his disciples must have been integral to the war effort. Their death, though not directly at the hands of the enemy, greatly weakened the Jewish situation.

As the mourning period is observed everywhere it is clear that the Jewish people as a whole found meaning in it, but the late development of the practice explains why the dates of the mourning are calculated differently by different groups.

What it does not explain is why there is a break on Lag Ba’Omer.

The Manhig, early 13th century, tells us that the students’ deaths continued until halfway through the period, which is approximately Lag Ba’Omer but not exactly.

However, Josephus (“Wars”, II:16-17) states that the first rising against Rome began on 17 Iyyar, 66 CE and the news became known on 18 Iyyar – Lag Ba’Omer – which was regarded as the anniversary of the uprising.

Presumably, the date was not referred to directly as Uprising Day or by any similar name in order to prevent reprisals, but indirectly as Lag Ba’Omer, Day 33 of the Omer.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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