Every year, around this time, when I run into someone I haven’t seen in a few weeks, I am greeted with the same five words.
“Rabbi, I like the beard!”
It takes quite a bit of restraint not to reply, “Thanks, but I hate it!”
It’s true, though. Facial hair is not my thing. It’s uncomfortable, it’s itchy, it’s four different colors.
However, though I don’t love the beard, I do love growing the beard.
Strange, right? What’s the difference between having a beard and growing a beard?
For many Jews who track the time between Passover and Shavuot, between redemption and revelation, between Egypt and Sinai, that, I can tell you in a word: the omer (with apologies to the Fiddler among fans us – though, after all, not shaving during the omer is a tradition).
“And where does this tradition come from? I’ll tell you!”
Though the bible tells us that counting the omer, literally sheaves of new grain, is indeed a time-keeping device, the Talmud also associates these same seven weeks with several tragic incidents that occurred almost two millennia ago. Most notably, 24,000 students of the great sage Rabbi Akiva were said to have died during the omer because of a terrible plague or as a result of the catastrophic failure of the Bar Kochba rebellion against the Romans.
In remembrance of the Torah scholars who perished, we observe certain mourning customs: we are not allowed to schedule joyous occasions like weddings, and, because we are not supposed to be concerned with our appearances when we are grieving, men are forbidden from shaving or cutting their hair.
You may ask (sorry, once I get started with Fiddler, it’s hard for me to stop), “but Rabbi, I see plenty of observant Jews who do shave between Pesach and Shavuot. So why don’t you?” Because, even though Jewish law permits men who work, in particular, to shave so that they can maintain a professional appearance, I find great meaning in looking in the mirror each morning during the omer.
And though our tradition would tell me that I’m supposed to feel sad when I see those brown, red, blond, and (alas) silver hairs on my cheeks I feel something else altogether different, but equally powerful: I feel religious. I feel pious. I feel like a Jew.
Judaism is an unabashedly proud religion, unconcerned with the judgement of others who might not understand or relate to the outward symbols of our faith: a kippah, tzitzit (the four fringes that we are commanded to wear not just on our tallit, but all our garments), or the mezuzah on our doorposts. God commands us not to fit in, but to stand out, and challenges us to overcome whatever discomfort we might experience as a result of our difference.
Sure, technically, according to Jewish law, I could shave (which I will do on Lag B’omer, the 33rd day of counting, when the plague that killed Rabbi Akiba’s students abated). And maybe, as a professional Jew, I have a little bit more latitude to “look” Jewish than my friends who are doctors, bankers, salespeople, and real estate agents.
But, as Tevye would say, “on the other hand,” of what profit are the temporal comforts of a smoother face compared to the constancy, merit, and strength of my connection to my people, my way of life, and my God?
Each evening as I count the omer, as I prepare my mind and my soul for the great gift that I will receive in less than a month at the foot of a mountain ablaze with smoke and lightning, I admit that I also count the days until I can look in the mirror and see a fresh face, reshaped and rediscovered, ready to receive the Torah with love.