Vanities of a Bonfire

Instead of attending a customary Bonfire, I spent an anomalous Lag B’Omer afternoon watching the gut wrenching movie ‘Gett’, (meaning ‘divorce’ in Hebrew). I woke up the next morning with a cluster of thoughts and emotions. I had muttered to myself half the night about the film’s complexities, conundrums, and yes – absurdity. It was like I had indeed been in the presence of a bonfire.

The sages say that without a higher focus in a marriage, the couple resembles two flames consuming each other. But along with the personal story, I wondered about aspects of Israel’s destiny, from a Torah perspective. On one hand, how can Israel strive to be the best democracy it can be in this day and age? On the other hand, how can traditional values continue to inform what must still strive to be the ‘holy land?’ As a democracy, Israel cannot ignore the rights of a vocal and religious constituency to practice Judaism as freely and as openly as possible, without discrimination. On the other hand, even with a history and a mandate that encourages greater levels of observance and commitment to religious values, Israel cannot ignore the growing and often vociferous tendencies to secular life-styles. Of course, all these questions exist independently of Israeli-Arab conflicts that aggravate the already volatile tensions.

I don’t propose to have any solution. I merely want to point out here how this personal saga of a family in crisis reflects the national, perhaps global, dilemma itself. Here is the plot in short: A woman from an observant Sefardic family who married at 15, had 4 children, and in her thirties, now wants a divorce. Many reasons eventually surface; even her insistence of general incompatibility is tightly bound up with a choice to be less observant. The Beit Din, the religious court, is in a quandary because according to Jewish law, the man must give the Gett, the bill of divorce. The husband however refuses over and over again, year after year, toying with both his wife and the court. It’s not clear why the Beit Din does not avail itself of other more or less sanctioned methods of coercion like social or religious ostracism. What is clear is the husband’s continued refusal. Amid complex dynamics, and confusing testimonies, he insists that he still loves her. But what ultimately emerges from the film is that his love translates more as possessiveness than genuine caring. Among many other aspects, this one stood out for me.

Now I think I know why I was meant to see the film during sefirat ha’omer: The Talmud says that we have a semi-mourning time because Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students who died between Pesach and Shavuot, because they did not give kavod – respect- to each other. But how could that be, many commentators ask, considering that Rabbi Akiva’s most important commandment was, ‘Love your friend as yourself?’ Among many perspectives, the Lubavitcher Rebbe expressed a similar idea to what I was saying about the movie – that each student felt that his point of view and understanding of Torah was the correct way to see things, and specifically because he loved his partner (remember that the Talmud frames the experience as that of 12,000 PAIRS of students). In other words each took ‘as yourself’ so literally that they couldn’t tolerate that their friends saw things differently! They may have thought they were expressing their teacher’s overarching principle, but it was in fact more like a mass toxic bond – a conspiratory like stifling of the emergence of the seventy faces of Torah that are meant to emerge through sacred interaction with colleagues.

No accident that this plague took place during the first three months (if you count from Nisan) of the Torah year. The Shem MiShmuel points out that the constellations for the three months starting from Nissan teach us about our own life journey, as well as that of the Israelites. Nisan is about the collective Jewish people being liberated from Egypt. The symbol is Ares, representing sheep that tend to move and live as a group. Then comes Iyar, whose symbol is a much more separate bull. The counting of the Omer is done individually, so much so that if someone travelled over the date line, there is a question about counting differently than everyone else. Finally we get to Sivan, Gemini, twins, about receiving the Torah in a differentiated group, like the Talmud’s use of 12,000 pairs.

Morah Yehudis Fishman
Morah Yehudis Fishman

On a personal path, this pattern reflects our differentiated growth – Nissan=Oceanic infancy where everything is an extension of one collective consciousness. Then comes Iyar=the individuation period where people develop their specific character and personality. Thirdly we get to Sivan, where we all stood together, but interdependently, around Mount Sinai. The Torah says that the Israelites camped, ‘K’Ish Echad B’lev Echad,’ as one person with one heart. Here the unity was more like parts of an organism working together.

It seems the world is moving closer to recognition of group power in a positive way. Nevertheless, there still prevails in society a fallback – mob-like mentality of bullying the powerless, as in the short story, ‘The Lottery’. This dynamic can be extremely painful or even destructive, even if the rationale is a moral high ground. However, as the sages remind us, the measure of good is potentially greater. We should instead cultivate the capacity to comprehend and manifest a sense of such loving and ‘twinning’ connection with each other that we can collectively transform a negative situation into something that even the most evolved individual could not accomplish on his or her own.

I think this striving for interdependence is the work we are expected to do during the Omer. It’s not just about appreciating differences. It’s about realizing that each soul has a unique makeup and destiny to fulfill in this lifetime, and if we have been meant to encounter and interact with a particular individual, we have the opportunity to either enhance or retard the accomplishment of his or her purpose and growth, but without grafting our perspective of what that person needs, based on our own biases. Pretty straightforward, I would say, but also very daunting. And I’m grateful that for me this year an Israeli movie highlighted that challenge for me.

As we move closer to Shavuot, I recall that even Sinai had its grass roots aspect. The sages tell us that Moshe added an extra day of preparation to those mandated by G-d. Moshe felt the people were not fully ready for revelation without that extra day. And G-d conceded! As the Baal Shem Tov, whose yarzeit is on Shavuot, explained the saying in Pirkei Avot: ‘Da ma l’maala mimcha,’ ‘know what is above you.’ The Baal Shem Tov paraphrased: ‘Know that what is above, comes from you!’ In other words, if we take the right steps on earth, heaven will reciprocate with Divine assistance.

The 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot have the numerical equivalent of ‘Lev Tov,’ a good heart. By the way, the letters that spell Lev are the last and first letters of the Torah, so really the heart is the core of Torah! Let us prepare with all the powers of a good heart to be ready to receive a new understanding of Torah that will connect us to G-d, to each other, and to the disparate parts of ourselves, so that we form a pure vessel to welcome Mashiach and redemption for the whole world, immediately, if not sooner!

About Morah Yehudis Fishman

I have been teaching Torah and Chassidic writings for over forty years to students of all ages and backgrounds, both on the East Coast and the Midwest. I have been a director of several Jewish organizations in Santa Fe and Colorado. My articles and poetry on a wide variety of Jewish topics have been printed in many publications, and also are available online.

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