I did not write this but the author gave me permission to share it. In a time of great challenges, Rabbi Shelton Donnell held a Seder via Zoom. Many of us are doing this but Rabbi Donnell’s post-seder thank you note was so touching and educational that I want to share it verbatim.

Next year in Jerusalem (or…. really… anyplace but Cyberspace).

Remember to love your relationships.

Chag Pesach Someach!

 


 

Dear Family and Friends,

Wendy and I want to thank you all for joining us for our Seder last night. To say the least, this was one of our more memorable Passover experiences. These have been very difficult times for all of us, all the more so because we are challenged to reevaluate so many things, activities, and services that we usually take for granted. This has also brought to the fore how important people and relationships are to us. Ironically, the social isolation that prevented us from holding our usual Seder, brought us “together” with many people with whom we rarely have contact. Granted, looking at your faces on a screen simply was not the same as having you in our dining room but, I must say, it made me feel connected to you as well as our tradition, and that was very meaningful for me.

This season marks more than our Passover Seder, tonight we begin the “Counting of the Omer,” the period of seven weeks between Passover (marking the Exodus from Egypt) and Shavu’ot when the Torah was revealed, transforming the ragtag refugees into a people, and a nation with a unique destiny that continues to evolve even today. When the Temples stood in Jerusalem, pilgrims brought the “Omer” — offerings of the first and best of their grain harvest. Centuries later, this joyous period took a dark and traumatic turn. Today, the period of Counting the Omer is observed by traditional Jews as a time for semi-mourning — pleasurable pursuits, new enterprises, and celebrations are suspended, following the customs of those who have lost a loved one. Why? The Babylonian Talmud tells us that during the Roman occupation of the Land of Israel, the conditions for Jews and Judaism were oppressive. Eventually, the Jews rebelled for a second time (the First Revolt from 66 to 70 C.E. saw the Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, one of the greatest existential traumas faced by our people). The Second Revolt, led by Bar Kochba, deepened the tragedy and resulted in the Diaspora of the Jewish people and the last gasp of the national aspirations of the Jewish people until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

During the period of the Hadrianic persecutions prior to Bar Kochba’s revolt, we are told that tragedy struck the students of the great Rabbi Akiva. Legend has it that 24,000 disciples died in a very short time. The rabbis of the Talmud attributed the deaths to a lack of mutual respect and concern by the disciples. Another explanation is that the students were brought down by a vicious plague. It is because of this incredibly sad memory that the period of the Counting of the Omer has transformed from a time of unbridled joy to semi-mourning and introspection.

Okay, so why do I bring this up? The story that I just related has a brighter side and a message that I think is very appropriate for us today. According to that same legend, a miracle happened on the thirty-third day of the Counting of the Omer — the plague stopped, and the devastation wrought upon the rabbis and their students ended, enabling them to renew and rebuild the rabbinic tradition that has come down to us today.

I find it interesting that predictions and projections about the trajectory of the coronavirus suggest that we may (please God) see a significant bending of the arc of contagion and death around the time of Lag B’Omer, the day on which we give thanks and celebrate the end of the plague that threatened Judaism itself. And more, the rabbis and their students appear to have learned a lesson about mutual respect and concern, so that they could actively make a positive difference in their situation and persevere against threats both physical and spiritual.

Our gathering last night for our Seder reminds me of the power of the human spirit and the importance of connecting through mutual respect and concern for each other. I believe that it was that faith in the human spirit that enabled our ancestors to survive that ancient plague and go on to thrive as a people, a nation and a faith. For me, that message is a beam of light in these dark times.

Wendy and I want to thank you again and pray that we all will remain safe, healthy, filled with hope and faith that we can do more than survive this modern plague, that we can use the lessons learned from it to make our family, our community, our nation and the world thrive. That, for me, would be a wonderful miracle.

With blessings for a happy and healthy Passover,

Shelton

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