Two great giants of Jewish History are involved in the observance of the Days of Sefirat HaOmer; they are Rabbi Akiva and his student, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
Rabbi Akiva is involved in the sad aspect of the Days, because, according to tradition, 24,000 of his students perished during this period. The reason generally given is that they were punished for not properly respecting one another. Somehow, though, this jars, because of the extraordinary ethical qualities of their Rebbe, who had asserted that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is the primary teaching of the Torah. Perhaps, the students were lost in the Bar Kochba War, of which Rabbi Akiva was a strong advocate, and which the Jewish People as a whole lost because of their ethical failings; the students “taking the rap,” so to speak, for the People as a whole.
In any case, any ordinary Rebbe would certainly have been crushed by this loss. Not so Rabbi Akiva, who demonstrated his great faith at that time and for all generations, when he rebuilt his yeshiva. By this, he asserted again his truly unique capability of seeing light in the blackest darkness, redemption in the face of utter devastation, as he had when he, with several colleagues, overlooked the Temple Mount leveled by the Romans. They had wept, he had laughed, and he explained his laughter by his confidence that just as the prophecies of destruction had come true, so surely would the prophecies of redemption.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is associated with the happier aspect of Sefirat HaOmer; Lag BaOmer, the thirty-third Day of the Omer. This day is celebrated by Jews worldwide mainly because, according to tradition, the plague which had decimated the students, suddenly ceased on that day. But Lag BaOmer, the 18th day of Iyar, is also the Yahrtzeit, the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon. The major role in Jewish History played by the G-dly Tanna, as he is called, is as the author of the Zohar. This work is the basis of that aspect of Torah known as “Torat HaSod”, the “Secret Torah,” a.k.a. “Kabbalah” which, while it is the deepest and most esoteric branch of Torah study, it also paradoxically has the greatest appeal to the masses. Kabbalah is one of the foundations of Chassidut.
Its study is not without risk, as we know from the Talmud’s account of the four great scholars who “entered the Pardes” (not to be confused with the Orthodox Union’s Pardes Project) Literally, a “pardes” is an orchard; but the word is also an acronym, as PaRDeS, where
“P,” corresponding to the Hebrew Letter, “Pai,” stands for “Pshat,” “simple meaning”
“R,” corresponding to the Hebrew Letter, “Resh,” stands for “Remez,” “hinted-at meaning”
“D,” corresponding to the Hebrew Letter, “Dalet,” stands for “Drash,” “derived meaning”
“S,” corresponding to the Hebrew Letter, “Samach,” stands for “Sod,” “secret meaning”
Of the four great scholars who entered the “orchard,” which in its “Sod” or “secret” aspect must have involved entering a state resembling deep meditation, the only one who emerged unscathed was Rabbi Akiva.
Tens of thousands of Jews gather in Meron each year on Lag BaOmer to light torches, dance and sing with great joy the “zemirot,” the songs, composed in honor of the one who preserved the traditions of Jewish Mysticism. Lag BaOmer is itself also a torch in the Night of Exile, which has helped the Jewish People survive the Galut – “Bar Yochai! You were anointed – you are fortunate – With oil of joy from your fellows!”