week, on the 18th of Iyar, we celebrated “Lag Ba’Omer,” the
33rd Day of “Sephirat Ha’Omer,” the Counting of the Omer. The significance of the Day is two-fold.
According to one opinion, it marks the day on which a plague that had
taken the lives of twenty four thousand students of Rabbi Akiva finally
ended, and it also marks the day on which the “Yahrtzeit” of Rabbi
Shimon bar Yochai is commemorated,
Each of the
reasons cited is problematic. First
of all, the Talmud explains that the reason for the plague that afflicted
the students of Rabbi Akiva was “that they did not show sufficient honor
to each other.” Now, surely
of all the great Tannaim of the Mishnah, who represented in their lives the
ideals of the Torah, one of the greatest, if not the greatest, was Rabbi
Akiva. And it was he who took
the verse that commanded (Vayikra 19:18), “...And you shall love your
neighbor as yourself...,” and said concerning it (Yerushalmi Nedarim 9,
4), “This is an over-arching rule of the Torah.”
Certainly the sign of a great “rebbi,” or “teacher of Torah,”
is that he is able to transmit to his disciples his “derech,” his
method, not only of understanding the Torah, but also of understanding life;
which are actually the same, as it says, “...for they (the commandments) are
our lives and the length of our days.”
follows that the students of Rabbi Akiva must have been not only great
believers in, but also great implementers of the principle “You shall love
your neighbor as yourself,” as was their “rebbi.”
So how can it be true that these disciples of Rabbi Akiva died
because they did not respect each other?
“Yahrtzeit” is not usually commemorated joyously. Some even observe the custom of fasting on that date.
So why is it that the “Yahrtzeit” of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is
actually celebrated as a holiday? And
especially is this so in Meron, the burial place of both the godly Tanna,
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and his son, Rabbi Elazar, where thousands of Jews
gather each year on the night of “Lag Ba’Omer” and sing and dance in
honor of the author of the “Zohar,” the Bible of the in-dwelling Torah.
answer to both of these questions can be found if we examine the account of
the “Asarah Harugei Malchut,” the Ten Martyrs.
These were ten holy individuals, including Rabbi Akiva, who, at
slightly different times during the period of the Roman persecution, paid
the supreme price, according to our Tradition, as atonement for the
selling of Yoseph into slavery by his brothers.
That was the sin that is the extreme example, if not the first, of
“sinat chinam,” causeless hatred, the sin which was re-enacted by the
Jews at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, the national
tragedy that is attributed by the Talmud to that terrible moral failure.
And perhaps the deaths of the twenty four thousand disciples
of Rabbi Akiva was not because they practiced “sinat chinam,” but
was a continuation of the atonement, hidden in the language of the
Talmud, for that sin.
was the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, one of the greatest students of
Rabbi Akiva, perhaps another step in the atonement for “sinat
chinam,” as hinted at in the chorus of the song “Bar Yochai,” sung by
torchlight on “Lag Ba’Omer” at Meron, that has become one of the most
beloved Shabbat Zemirot,
You were anointed
Master of the Universe, let the martyrs of Jewish History, including those precious souls that were sacrificed in the Holocaust and in the partial rebuilding of Eretz Yisrael in our time, be the completion of the atonement for “sinat chinam,” and bring now the final deliverance to Your People.
Rabbi Pinchas Frankel