Rabbi Yair Robinson
This past week I had my regular study session with a few of my non-Jewish colleagues, a monthly gathering that has continued despite the pandemic, just moved to Zoom. And we were amazed by the transformation of one of our group. He had refrained from getting a haircut or his beard trimmed during the pandemic, originally thinking, like most of us did, that this would be over in a few weeks, or maybe months. Instead, he slid gradually from his usually well-kept appearance to beatnik, then Old Salt Fisherman, and Finally Old Testament Prophet. That is, until a few weeks ago. Since his church was gathering in-person for part of Easter worship, he finally relented and allowed himself to be trimmed, his time as a nazirite finally come to an end.
I bring this up as we leave behind Lag B’Omer, that day during the counting of the omer that is probably best known for bonfires and cookouts but has another meaning in our tradition. The Omer, that counting from Passover to Shavuot, is not just about enumerating the days. At various times in Jewish history, different restrictions, paralleling the behaviors of mourning, of grieving, have come to be a part of this time, a time, we are told, to remember the death of so many Torah scholars under Roman rule, but also a reminder that this is supposed to be a time of self-reflection and introspection. Weddings are discouraged, as are the use of musical instruments, and, well, getting haircuts, and to this day many Jews refrain from getting a trim or a shave during the Omer. Lag B’Omer, however, is a break from that, a moment of levity and release, and so along with the cookouts, we have weddings, and music, and, well, haircuts.
For the past fifteen months or so, many of us seemed to be in a permanent or semi-permanent state of the omer, grieving the past, our inability to be with one another, and the lack of normalcy, and somehow recognizing that that world is, in many ways, gone forever. For many, getting that post-vaccination haircut—by a professional, in a salon or barbershop, as opposed to at the kitchen sink by a relative or in the driveway—as become something of a sign of release, a moment of joy, of self-care, of relief. It tells us that these rituals of abstaining and then engaging still have power.
Which leads to our Torah text. We are reminded this week that we should not profane God’s name, so that God is sanctified in our midst, and therefore sanctifies us. Seems straightforward, echoing the words of last week’s portion, kedoshim, that we shall be holy for God is holy. But this text reverses that language. That our behavior—our words, our language–may somehow desecrate God, and in so doing, desecrate ourselves. What are we doing when we abstain from joyous behavior, either during the pandemic or the Omer? What are we signaling? Does it mean something? I would argue that our text is telling us that our behavior, our actions in the public square have the power to proclaim holiness or its opposite. It means something. My friend the pastor, by refraining from trimming hair or beard, was signaling something about what it has meant to live in this time: the pain, the grief, the anxiety. Similarly, during the Omer, our actions are supposed to signal to us and those around us that we should be engaging in self-reflection. They, and our portion, remind us that none of our actions or our words are incidental; they matter, if I may say, on a cosmic scale. And they require careful, intentional thought. In doing so, may we sanctify those around us and ourselves. Amen.