This week's parsha is Emor. It has all the commandments of the festivals. Pesach, Shavuot, Succot.... the list goes on. They are all included. Obviously included in the list is the omer period that we are counting now - the period between Pesach and Shavuot. During this period we basically re-trace that journey from the leaving of Egypt that we relive on Pesach, to the arrival at our goal - the receiving of the Torah at Mt Sinai that we relive on Shavuot. This is the connecting period.
On Pesach the days that are fully festivals are the first and last days, and the middle days are a kind of semi holiday. Those middle days are called in Ivrit chol hamoed. The middle days of Succot are the same. The Ramban in this weeks parsha says that this period, the omer period, where we count the days from leaving Egypt to receiving the Torah at Mt Sinai, from Pesach to Shavuot, should really be one long chol hamoed! We are in the middle of one big festival.... the leaving of Egypt and arriving at Mt Sinai to receive the Torah. It was all one journey, and we are still in the middle of celebrating it.
If so, why is it that nowadays we don't celebrate this period? In fact, it's exactly the opposite! We mourn during this period! If you saw me now, you would see a pretty mean beard. As good as it looks, it's not there out of style. We are in a kind of mourning period now, and as a part of that most religious men don't shave, just like during the mourning period. It's exactly the opposite of what it's supposed to be!? Why?
In fact this period used to be a time of simcha and happiness. And then one year Rabbi Akiva's students all died during this period. 24,000 of them. It works out that 500 students died each day! That's a terrible tragedy. These were the greatest Torah minds of the world! The future leaders of the Jewish people! And something terrible happened. Why did they die? The gemara says that the reason is because they didn't treat each other with kavod - respect. Now, don't think this means they used to walk in to the study hall in the mourning and crack jokes about each other. If so, Rabbi Akiva of course would have noticed what was going on and fixed things up! No. It means they got so lost in their own acheivements, that they didn't appreciate each others worth. They forgot in some way to realise that everyone has their task in the world, and has to add their bit. Without that, without everybody fulfilling what they were created to fulfill, each individual hasn't achieved anything either. That was a terrible mistake and it had terrible consequences.
And so this period became a semi-mourning period instead of a semi-rejoicing period. But it won't always be so. When we recognise each others importance, and treat each other with respect, then we can undo the mistake that they made.
Let it start with you!
Shabbat Shalom.

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