Tonight begins Lag BaOmer, a rather minor day on the Jewish calendar, but one filled with significance. According to tradition, in the time between Passover and Shavuot, know as Sefirat HaOmer, or the counting of the Omer, 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died in a pandemic, but on the 33rd day (Lag = Lamed Gimmel = 33) the plague began to subside. As a result, Lag BaOmer became a day of joy and celebration.
I always thought that Lag BaOmer was a curious day. Why celebrate while a pandemic is raging? The Talmud specifically states that the plague happened between Passover and Shavuot, so people must still have been getting sick and dying even after Lag BaOmer. After all, there are over two weeks left until Shavuot.
After a year of actually living through a pandemic, I now get it. There is no date when we will be able to say, “OK the plague of COVID-19 is over.” I imagine that our ancestors decided just to pick a day, Lag BaOmer, to be the moment when they celebrated the subsiding of the disease.
We too are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel and need to find ways to mark this moment of transition. Personally, I have chosen to look at what I call V-Day, two weeks after my last dose of the vaccine, as a kind of personal Lag BaOmer. COVID-19 is not over, but a return to normal is on the horizon.
One of the elements of Lag BaOmer is the lighting of bonfires, whose origins is shrouded in mystery, but may relate to the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. According to the Zohar, his death was marked by a fiery “wedding” celebration. Fire is incredibly important in Judaism because the flame represents the light of Torah and God, but the metaphor can be taken even further.
Someone recently asked the New York Times, “Where does a candle go when it burns?” It’s one of those things you don’t think about until someone points it out. It turns out that the wax and the wick are turned into carbon dioxide and water vapor which get mixed with the air. Both of these gases are produced in low quantities but could potentially be dangerous if lots of candles are burned in a space that is not well ventilated.
Smoke and other byproducts of fire are good analogies for understanding the spread of the coronavirus. While a virus is invisible and odorless, its easy to see how a candle, particularly a scented one, affects the room. The smoke and aroma of a candle are stronger the closer you get, which is why we try to stay at least six feet apart from others even as we understand that the virus, just like the carbon dioxide and water vapor of a candle, can travel much further.
The Times notes that these byproducts from a candle eventually mix with the air outside your room. “After about a year, atoms from your candle will have spread completely around the globe. For the next few years, every time someone takes a breath of air, they’ll be breathing in a few carbon atoms from the wax and a few oxygen atoms from the air in your room.”
Fire is a fleeting phenomenon, but one with long lasting effects. The flame of Torah also burns in the moment but then continues to spread its influence long after the initial engagement with the text. Where does a candle go when it burns? The answer is everywhere. The flame, or the Torah, eventually becomes a part of you and me, and everyone else in the world.