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Despair and Hope (a Lag B’Omer story)

Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day in the counting of the Omer, started as a celebration in a time of great despair throughout all of Israel. In Rabbi Akiva’s day, a terrible plague swept Israel. Thousands died. The people were desperately afraid. They thought the plague would never end and they despaired. But on Lag B’Omer, the plague halted. No new cases broke out on that day; no one died. Hope had returned and chased the despair away. So, the Jews celebrated. Few Jews today in America count the Omer–the countdown to Shavuot, the day God gave the Israelites the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Probably most have never even heard of Lag B’Omer. But if they knew this holiday, they would skip school or work, go outside, play, have picnics, and sing and dance for joy to celebrate the day God stopped the plague and ended a period of great despair.

Do you even know what despair is? I hope not. I hope you’ve never felt it, and I pray you never will. Despair is feeling very, very sad, and not only that but feeling things will never, ever get better. Nobody wants despair yet it is a part of life sometimes. But do you want to know a secret about despair? It doesn’t last forever, even though it might feel that way at times. I don’t know why God allows despair into the world, but I do know God also gave people hope. And hope always wins out over despair.

Not so very many years ago, a young Jewish boy named Izzy felt despair. Izzy was only 10 years old, and it seemed that he didn’t know anything but despair. He was born in a part of Russia called the Pale. Many Jews lived there, but they were very poor and their lives were very hard. They worked and worked but barely had enough to eat. Their poor homes were terribly cold in the winter. Their winter coats were thin, tattered and worn. But despite all the hardships, they would have been happy just living among other Jews in the Pale, celebrating Jewish holidays, observing Shabbat, studying Torah. Except for one thing—their neighbors. The other people who lived around the Pale hated the Jews for no reason except that they were Jews. And they made life especially miserable for the Jews. Sometimes they seemed to go crazy with rage and suddenly attack Jews.

Izzy’s mother heard the shouting that signaled the start of one of those attacks, called a pogrom. She grabbed Izzy and dashed out of their home, which itself wasn’t much more than a little shack. Izzy’s father, a tailor who worked in a small shed next to their home, heard the attackers too. When they tried to chase Izzy and his mother, Izzy’s father started to fight with them, even though some of the attackers were on horseback and carried big swords. They struck down Izzy’s father. But he had slowed the attackers long enough for Izzy and his mother to get away and hide in the woods. Now you know why Izzy felt great despair.

“We cannot live here anymore,” Izzy’s mother told him a few days later. The attack had ended as suddenly as it began, but it was too late for Izzy’s father. The Jews of their village buried him and others who had been killed that day and sat shiva, the weeklong Jewish period of mourning.

“Where will we go?” Izzy asked.

“To America,” his mother replied. Izzy had heard of America. Everybody had. Some Jews had left the village for America and never came back. But sometimes cards and letters would arrive from them. America seemed so wonderful, so full of hope and promise. Izzy’s mother had never left the village in her entire life, but she sold his father’s sewing machine, the only thing of value they had, and took some small savings she had managed to put away over the years. She and Izzy left, walking away from the village on the single dirt path.

Sometimes farmers gave them rides, but mainly they walked and walked and walked. They scrounged for food to eat wherever they could. When there was no food at all to be found, Izzy’s mother bought a little milk or cheese or bread with some of their money or in exchange for doing chores. They walked for days and days usually passing around towns, sleeping in barns or even outside. Often, especially when they heard or saw horsemen, they jumped off the road and hid in bushes. The horsemen were the same kind of men who attacked them in their village. When they found Jewish villages, people gave them what help they could—a dry place to sleep, some hot food—but these other Jews were almost as bad off as Izzy and his mother.

“When will we get to America?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” his mother said sadly. Thinking about the seemingly endless walking ahead of them, Izzy again felt despair. He was hungry and tired. His feet hurt. He tried not to, but he started to cry. “Trust in God. We will get there,” his mother added, hugging him tightly.

Eventually they arrived at a small town near a forest. This time they cautiously ventured into the town. His mother had a certain address she was looking for. Izzy’s despair lightened. Maybe the journey was finally coming to an end.

When they found the address, Izzy’s mother spent a long time talking to a mean-looking man who lived there. He didn’t look like one of the horsemen, but he wasn’t Jewish either. “This is all I can pay,” Izzy heard his mother say, showing the man the little money they had left. The man stamped his feet and spoke in an angry voice but finally agreed.

Izzy’s mother walked back to him. “Are we almost there?” Izzy asked eagerly.

“Yes, almost, God willing,” she replied. “But the hardest, most dangerous part comes tonight. Tonight we cross the border. It will be very dangerous. The guards will try to stop us,” she warned. Fear rose in Izzy, but he fought off the fear by thinking that America was near.

They spent the rest of the day huddled in the woods outside the town. When the moon rose, Izzy and his mother got up and walked to the place where they would meet the man. Soon he came by in a hay wagon. He was going to take them to a spot where they could sneak across the frontier, the border, Izzy’s mother explained. They had to sneak because many countries didn’t want poor people to come, especially poor Jews, even if they were just passing through to get to America. And, to make matters worse, the country where Izzy lived didn’t want to let Jews leave unless they could pay a lot of money. And we know Izzy and his mother didn’t have very much money.

“Get in the back and hide under the hay,” the man ordered. Izzy’s mother gave him their money.

Izzy doesn’t remember how long they traveled. The wagon was uncomfortable, the hay poked him, but it was better than walking. He lay close to his mother, her arms wrapped around him.

Suddenly they heard shouting. The wagon picked up speed. Then they heard gunshots. Only the government soldiers had guns. The wagon speeded up and began bouncing wildly. Then it tipped over. Izzy and his mother tumbled out. Soldiers were running toward them. The driver lay on the ground moaning. The horse was struggling to get to its feet. Izzy started toward the driver.

“We can’t help him. Run!” Izzy’s mother shouted. She grabbed him and pushed him forward. It was still dark, but they ran and ran toward some woods. “That’s the border,” his mother shouted. The soldiers shot at them. Izzy heard the crack of the gunshots and could feel bullets whizzing through the air. But the soldiers stopped at the tipped over wagon. Izzy and his mother made it into the woods. “Thank you God, thank you, thank you,” his mother whispered as they both tried to catch their breath.

Across the border, Izzy and his mother found other Jews who also hoped to get to America or anyplace else where they could be safe to live as Jews. They all gathered together in a run down part of a big city and waited. Days, weeks, maybe even months went by. Izzy played with the other children. A rabbi organized a cheder, a school, where Izzy and other children could learn, but they had only a few worn and tattered books. Izzy’s mother managed to find them some food and clothes, but things still were very hard for them. He despaired of ever getting to America. At the same time he also was afraid of the trip. It meant they would have to get on a big ship and cross the ocean.

One day his mother rushed into the room where they were staying. “We leave for America tomorrow,” she announced. Izzy was shocked. It didn’t take long to gather their few things. The next day they crowded onto a big, dirty, rusting old boat. They joined hundreds of other refugees, which is what people fleeing a place are called. The refugees huddled in a smelly, crowded space deep inside the ship. There was a small deck where they could go outside. That is where Izzy preferred to spend most of his time.

The voyage was terrible. The ship heaved up and down and rocked side to side. Almost everybody got seasick, including Izzy and his mother. People were throwing up everywhere. The odor was terrible, enough by itself to make somebody sick, Izzy thought. The trip seemed like it would never end. Again, Izzy despaired.

Then one night word swept through the refugees. Tomorrow morning they would reach New York City, America. At dawn they all crowded onto the little deck to see the new country. Izzy could barely see anything. Finally, the boat arrived in the harbor, and Izzy saw giant buildings reaching high into the sky. People pointed out a huge statue of a lady and said it was the Statue of Liberty. Izzy’s mother cried and thanked God over and over again. Other people shouted for joy. But Izzy looked at the giant buildings and felt frightened.

For Izzy, the rest of that day was a blur of seemingly endless lines. He clutched his mother’s coat as they shuffled from line to line, filling out forms, showing papers, getting papers. Finally, Izzy and his mother emerged onto the streets of New York, filled with more vehicles and people than Izzy had ever seen. His worst fears were churning his stomach. He clutched his mother’s hand. “Don’t be afraid. We are going to people we know. We’re safe. Nobody will hurt us here,” she reassured him.

His mother had a piece of paper with an address on it. They walked through a maze of streets. Sometimes his mother stopped people and showed them the paper. They would look at it and point one way or another. His mother did not speak the language. They couldn’t even read the street signs. Slowly the big buildings gave way to smaller buildings. Then, Izzy noticed signs he could read, in Yiddish and Hebrew. For the first time, he felt excited, hopeful. “Momma! Ema!” he cried, pointing to the signs.

Soon they were climbing the stairs to the apartment of people who once lived in their village. Izzy didn’t know them, but his mother did. The father of the family, Moshe, was a large, friendly man with a loud laugh. Izzy and his mother were warmly welcomed and fed. Izzy quickly fell asleep on a mattress on the floor.

The next day Izzy awoke to bright, warm sunshine. It was early in May. His mother and others in the house were already up and about. “Come, we are going out,” she explained. She helped him dress in some clean clothes she had borrowed for him from the other children in the apartment. Izzy didn’t want to go out. He was afraid.

“Come, it will be fun,” boomed Moshe in Yiddish. “We’re going on a picnic,” he said using an English word. Izzy couldn’t understand the English word. “I bet you don’t know what a picnic is,” he said in Yiddish and laughed. “Don’t worry, it will be great fun.”

They all rode together on a train– Izzy’s first ride on a train. The train itself was amazing and frightening. It went so fast and made loud awful noise and it bumped and jerked. He could see other Jews on the train. Moshe and his family talked with them.

When they got off the train, they were at a large park where hundreds, maybe even thousands, of other Jews had gathered. They set out food and blankets and toys that Moshe’s family had brought. Games were organized. He heard people singing familiar Yiddish songs and saw groups of people dancing. Izzy was dazzled. “Is America like this every day?” he asked Moshe.

“No, no,” Moshe chuckled. “Today is Lag B’Omer, when Jews celebrate hope and the end of despair. Tomorrow we go back to work, but for now go, run, play, and do not be afraid. In America you are safe and free to be a Jew.” He gave Izzy a piece of candy and sent him off to join some boys nearby playing with a ball. They immediately invited Izzy into their game.

Things turned out to be very good for Izzy and his mother in America. They worked hard, and prospered. Certainly there were sad times and disappointments and often things seemed very hard, especially early on, but whenever Izzy started to despair, he remembered Lag B’Omer, a holiday of joy and hope, to remind us that God brings an end to even the worst times.