Lag Ba’Yuter

Thoughts and Ruminations on Turning 33

For my annual birthday post it’s hard for me not to look back to the previous year especially in accounting for a whole slew of personal issues. Far from being a “year of the heart” as I had hoped, at times I look back on 32 as being a “lost year”, at least emotionally. Perhaps I’m still feeling the effects of the breakup or the regular stressors of being a rabbi, or just good old fashioned insecurity.

Typically this isn’t the way one wants to feel on one’s birthday, but I’d like to suggest that there is an important lesson – at least for myself – in turning 33.

Repeating the use of Gematria for this year, I found in the set of Hebrew words with a numerical value of 33 a pair of words with opposing connotations. One is “אבל” (avel) indicating “mourning” (depending on vocalization) and “יחיה” (yichyeh) or “[he] shall live.”

Interestingly, Judaism’s most identifiable “33” is recognized precisely for its association with mourning. Between the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot Jews count the Omer. The Talmud relates that 24,000 students of R. Akiva died of plague during this time period as punishment for not treating each other with proper respect (B. Yevamot 62b). According to Jewish tradition, this plague ended on the 33rd day of the Omer – Lag BaOmer in Hebrew. In commemoration of this tragedy, Jews engage in certain practices of mourning, typically culminating with a celebration.1 The ostensible purpose of these mourning practices is to increase awareness of how we ought to treat each other i.e. how we ought to live.2

This is not the only instance in Judaism where we find mourning used as a tool for living. In particular, Kohelet 7:2 states, “It is better to go to a house of mourning (בית אבל) than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart” and two verses later in 7:4, “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.”

But mourning can take many forms. While we normally associate mourning with the passing of a loved one, to a lesser extent we can mourn over each and every loss we experience, be it a relationship, job, or time. The purpose of mourning is to allow us to grieve and experience in our loss so that we can move on to the next opportunity which awaits us.

Thus, the connection between “mourning” and “living” is not merely numerical, but an integral part of life. Rather than viewing them as opposing forces, I suggest we view them as one, כאחד which also equals 33.

However, this assumes that we give ourselves permission to grieve and to let go of the past, which is of course easier said than done. I know for myself, this is an area in which I know I need to work and hope to improve at 33. In the meantime, to all friends of mine who have helped convey this message in various forms over the years, I thank you.

1. I never quite understood why the cessation of a tragedy merits a celebration, and indeed there are those who still observe practices of mourning until the 34th day of the Omer. See Shulhan Aruch O.C. 493:2.
2. Indeed, see Kohelet 7:2 and 7:4