The days of Yom HaAtzma’ut, Yom HaSho’ah, and Yom Yerushalayim are all observed during the period of Sefirat HaOmer. Upon initial reflection, this convergence of dates would seem coincidental. After all, two of these dates mark specific events in recent history, and we celebrate their anniversaries respectively. As we have witnessed, the degree to which these days have been observed, if at all, is the subject of an ongoing debate within the Jewish community. For some, the observance of Yom HaAtzma’ut includes the recitation of Hallel with a Berachah, and yet for others, the Berachah is omitted. Some communities enjoy an elaborate service consisting of an expanded Pesukei DeZimra and a Haftarah, while others do not. Similarly, Yom HaSho’ah has become a sacred day of remembrance for some, and yet others hesitate to participate in public displays of mourning during the month of Nissan, while others insist that we should not establish new days of mourning during any point during the year.
Remarkably, controversy regarding practice and ritual during Sefirah is nothing new. The span from Pesach through Shavuot has always been marked with strains of contention. For centuries, communities throughout the world engaged in debate as to whether Av HaRachamim should be recited on the Shabbat preceding Rosh Chodesh Iyar and Sivan. As we know, the very time period during which the mourning of Sefirah is observed has also been subject to ancient debate. Whether one observes the “first half” or the “second half” (or any one of the many other variant customs), it seems that controversy and debate loom throughout.
Rav Mordechai Machlis of Yerushalayim has suggested that this phenomenon is, in fact, no coincidence at all. Our Rabbis teach us (Yevamot 62b) that this time of year marks the tragic and untimely death of 24,000 of Rabi Akiva’s students, whose tragic demise came as a result of their failure to demonstrate proper respect towards each other. Despite their access and proximity to one of the most distinguished sages in our people’s history, they were not immune to the challenges which constantly threaten one’s ability to remain proper and straight through one’s interpersonal dealings. It has been suggested that in the case of the students of Rabi Akiva, it was their very Torah knowledge and their meticulous observance of a Torah lifestyle that ultimately compromised their ability to demonstrate proper respect for each other. Despite their sincere quest to attach themselves to the divine, they forgot to not step on each other along the way. Their motivations were undoubtedly focused and pure, but unfortunately, their judgment was skewed. We are charged to remain sensitive and concerned for the needs of others even (if not especially) as we strive to walk with Hashem.
Perhaps, therefore, the controversy and debate which is constant throughout this time period is nothing less than a test which has been sent our way. How do we react and respond to different practices and traditions within the community? Have we learned from mistakes of the past and have we internalized the message of the Aveilut of Sefirah? Do we claim (or even think) that our traditions, views, and practices automatically exclude the possibility of another? Is my approach the only acceptable view, thereby eliminating the need to even consider a different one? It is no coincidence that from Pesach until Shavu’ot, the Jewish calendar is studded with controversy. Our method of response and our means of reaction to differing views are being carefully observed from on high. Rabi Akiva’s students lost their lives “MiShum SheLo Nahagu Kavod Zeh LaZah,” because they did not have proper respect for one another. Have we learned the lessons of the past? Are we any more worthy of compassion than they were? We must remember that Rabi Akiva’s students were fully engaged in their Avodat Hashem and still failed to show adequate respect towards each other. Let us make every attempt to learn from the past and strive for excellence as we are Nohagim Kavod Zeh LaZeh.