Earlier this week a friend asked me why we wait until the High Holidays to recite all of the Al Chets and confess our sins. She wondered if it wouldn’t be more effective to break down that portion of those prayers, where we as a community take ownership for the error of our ways, and examine the various categories of sins so that we can each recognize the misdeeds in our own behaviors. She lamented that formal repentance should not wait until Tishrei suggesting that we all might be better off if the Al Chets were incorporated into synagogue life.
She proposed breaking down the stanzas and teaching them line by line year-round so that when we get to Yom Kippur, we would approach the day with a self-awareness and an ongoing attempt at Tikkun.
On my walk back to the office, I pondered her wise words and wondered if we might turn them into action.
I was reminded again of our talk last night which marked the 33rd day of the Omer. Even if you haven’t been diligently counting from the second night of Pesach, you might know that Lag B’Omer is upon us because of the numerous events on our community calendars. From public bonfires to bnei mitzvah celebrations and weddings to haircuts and school field trips, (and yes, more bonfires!) countless people are marking this day with some kind of levity.
What is the relevance between fun and joy and Lag B’Omer? The Babylonian Talmud in Yevamot 62b says, “Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students from Gevat to Antipatris and they all died in one period because they did not treat each other with respect.” We are told that the plague that killed Rabbi Akiva’s students ended on Lag B’Omer.
While that is indeed a cause of celebration, we should also mark it as a day that serves as a reminder of the importance of civility and unity.
As I look at Orthodox communities across the country and around the world, I am cognizant of our many differences. However, because of a commitment to halakha and community, I am also aware that there is so much more that unites rather than divides us. Walls that are perceived barriers can easily be transformed into doors that open into shared spaces which in turn can help us connect with one another.
I have seen how the work of JOFA, whose mission it is to empower women within a halakhic framework, reaches men and women from all walks of life and of all ages––single, married, divorced, widowed, people of color, Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, LGBTQ identifying Jews, Jews who were born into Orthodox families and those who came to embrace tradition later in life. When we empower women, we empower communities.
But, we have only touched the tip of the iceberg. There are too many Jews, and women in particular, who continue to be disenfranchised from Jewish communal life. As women break through glass ceilings in their professional lives, there is still a hunger to expand the spiritual, ritual, intellectual, leadership, and political opportunities for women within the framework of halakhah. JOFA has an important role to play in public conversations about #MeToo, the erasure of women’s images from public spaces, and ensuring that women are included as decision makers on Jewish institutional boards and committees. Has American Orthodoxy come a long way? In many communities, the answer is yes. But, not without its struggles. And in many more communities we have a long way to go. We know that will see our greatest successes as an Orthodox community when we widen the tent to create spaces for women to have meaningful roles in Jewish life.
As the embers of the day’s bonfires die away, let’s take the lessons learned from the behaviors of Rabbi Akiva’s students as a Tikkun and as a reminder of the importance of working together harmoniously and respectfully.
Daphne Lazar Price is the Executive Director of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.
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