On Tuesday night I attended a monthly "Dinner with Dina" at Chabad of West Pasco. It was an emotional and inspiring evening, and despite being nine months pregnant and slightly uncomfortable, I was glad I went.
Rebbetzin Dina Eber spoke at length about the somewhat obscure Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer, which this year falls on May 2.
While her words were directed at the dozen or so women who attended the dinner at the Chabad House in Trinity, the overall message is universal.
"Love your fellow as yourself," she said, quoting the Torah.
After Passover ends each year, we count for 49 nights, up until Shavuot, which commemorates our receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai 3,500 years ago.
The Lag B'Omer holiday comes on the 33rd day of this seven-week counting period. Not to get bogged down in the details, it's important to remember a few basic yet inspiring thoughts.
First, we count down the days from our Exodus from Egypt (Passover) until Shavuot to show God how excited we are, like we'd count the days until an upcoming trip or event.
"It's a marriage between God and the Jewish people," Eber said. "We count to show God how we cherish the Torah."
She said every year it's like we are receiving the Torah new, for the first time.
During the seven-week period, it's a chance to refine ourselves, to focus on improving positive character traits and to become a more elevated person in general. We traditionally don't have weddings, listen to music or cut our hair.
The one-day holiday of Lag B'Omer, which commemorates two great Jewish leaders, is sort of a break from the seven-week period of introspection.
Rabbi Akiva, who lived about 1,900 years ago, grew up a simple shepherd, but with the encouragement of his wife, spent 24 years of his adult life learning and studying the details of the Torah. He amassed some 24,000 students, who ended up going against his main teaching to love your fellow as yourself, getting caught up with the details and focusing instead on their differences.
An epidemic struck his students, killing many of them, but on the 33rd day of the Omer, the sickness ended and, we assume, they learned their lesson. This is one aspect of celebration during the holiday.
The other leader is Shimon bar Yochai, who lived about 1,800 years ago and spent more than a decade hiding from Roman persecutors in a cave. He became well-versed in the Bible, but when he emerged was not able to relate to the people around him, so God sent him back to the cave, until he understood this basic principle, according to our teaching.
"God wants people to live and do mitzvahs (deeds) in the physical world," Eber said. He wanted the day of his death, Lag B'Omer, to be a celebration.
The Lag B'Omer holiday typically includes bonfires and barbecues, parties and other festive and sometimes unique events.
And despite the seemingly significant differences that may exist in any faith, Lag B'Omer encourages a strong love of every Jew, with no judgments, no labels, no denominations.
"It's the message of true love," said Eber, who is originally from Paris and then New York, but moved to Trinity four years ago with her husband, Rabbi Yossi Eber, and children.
When we feel threatened or frustrated by someone else, we should try to elevate ourselves rather than pulling others down.
"Do something kind for others, even if you're not in the mood," she said.
She quoted Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the leader of the Brooklyn-based Chabad Lubavich movement that includes thousands of emissaries around the world like Eber, saying, "No matter how you behaved prior to this moment, you can start fresh now."
Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holzber were part of the same mission as the Ebers when they were murdered in Mumbai, India, a little over a year ago. Eber showed a heart-wrenching video about the young couple and the way they reached out to others, regardless of background or affiliation.
I couldn't hold back the tears.
"We should all go home with action," Eber said, add a penny to charity, just be a little a nicer to people.
"It's easy? No. But this is what we should strive to do."
Mindy Rubenstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.