Mesorah and Middos

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09 Sep 2016
Lag BaOmer

Historically, the period between Pesach and Shavuos was meant to be a period of great joy and anticipation, for our redemption from Egypt was the precursor to the ultimate goal of receiving the Torah on Shavuos and symbolically consummating our relationship to Hakadosh Baruch Hu. Yet the period has changed to become a period of mourning, for it was during this timeframe that 12,000 pairs of Rabbi Akiva’s students, 24,000 souls perished. They died over a period of thirty two days. (Because there are multiple calculations of which days are included, there are different customs for which days constitute the days of mourning.) Rabbi Akiva then went and rebuilt his “yeshiva” with just five students who then were responsible for the transmission of the entire oral Torah. Perhaps the most preeminent of these students was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai who died on Lag BaOmer, the thirty third day of counting from Passover to Shavuos. This day is celebrated with great joy, and honor to the memory of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. What is the connection between these seemingly disparate details? Further, asks Rabbi Yaakov Hillel in In Ascending Jacobs Ladder, why have our Rabbis decreed four weeks of mourning for the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples, a longer period of mourning than for any other tragedy in our history, and why did Hashem choose this time of the year for their death?

As in the Biblical era, when this period was meant as a time when Bnei Yisroel would prepare themselves for accepting the Torah, so too does this period represent time we need to spend on self improvement to constantly be worthy of the great gift of Torah, writes Rabbi Pam. By keeping this concept in mind, we can perhaps begin making connections between all the aspects of Sefirah.

Let us begin our discussion through the teaching of Rabbi Goldwicht. Mankind has different intellectual processes, notes Rabbi Goldwicht. On the first level, chochmah, there is factual knowledge. However, facts alone are not very useful unless one can build on those facts and make inferences and derive truths. This is the next level, binah, understanding, derived from the same root word that means building. On this level, man begins integrating knowledge. The final level, which we will merely mention here and not discuss, is da’at, wisdom, where full integration takes place.

Rabbi Goldwicht continues by explaining how Adam was charged with naming all creatures including himself. Using his intellect, he called himself Adam, because “from adamah, from earth was I taken.” Although Man, in contradistinction to the animals who were also formed from the earth, contained within himself the image and spirit of God, Adam chose the quality of earth to be his defining element. Why? Because earth is the medium for growth and for creating beauty, a quality no other element possesses. If it is nurtured properly, the earth can produce so much good. Similarly, Mankind is charged with improving himself, growing, and creating beauty and good in the world.

This is also the main aspect of the period between Pesach and Shavuot, continues Rabbi Goldwicht. On Pesach, Hashem looked down and gave us the gift of removing us from the depravity of Egypt without any real effort on our part. However, we were to take that gift and work on it for forty nine additional days to develop and integrate that experience and raise our level of holiness. Only then would we be ready to receive the Torah.

This division also parallels the two aspects of Torah, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. The written Torah was a direct gift given to Moshe at Sinai and transmitted to Yehoshua, and continued down the line of transmission. This is external Torah. However, the Torah was not meant to be static facts, but was meant to be studied and its principles applied to differing situations. This is the Oral Torah and requires work to understand the underlying precepts of the written Torah and how to apply them as situations change.

This idea can then be furthered by matching each week of Sefirah to one of our great leaders, as the ushpizin, the special Succoth guests. The first three weeks of Sefirah correspond to our forefathers who form the basis for factual knowledge of God. Moshe brought that Torah down from Hashem as a direct gift to Bnei Yisroel. As such, he represents the Written Torah. But Moshe is also the transitional figure who learned the secrets of the Torah, while his brother Aharon become the prophet, the spokesperson who would explicate the Torah to the masses. Aharon, then, is represented by the fifth week of Sefirah, the week we begin building and working on ourselves. Rabbi Akiva is the historical paradigm of the Aharon model who would then transmit and explicate the Torah for the entire nation to understand and follow.

At this point it is appropriate to mention the Medrash that when Moshe was receiving the Torah on Sinai, he observed Hashem adding crowns and points to many of the letters. Hashem told Moshe that one day a man named Rabbi Akiva would explain what each of these points were meant to teach.

We have now come back to Rabbi Akiva who lost all his disciples at this time of year, all who were being trained to transmit the oral tradition to future generations. But Rabbi Akiva did not despair in spite of this great tragedy. He took just five students who would then become the great transmitters of almost all of our oral tradition. Among them was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai who would write the Kabalistic work, the Zohar, and bring new light to the world. These five students, most notably Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, became the link of our Mesorah, our oral tradition, from earlier times through this dark period of Roman persecution into the present.

We are told that Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 disciples died because they did not give proper respect to one another. This idea fits in very well with our theme. When Bnei Yisroel received the Torah, they were encamped at the foot of the mountain. The Torah uses the singular form of the verb encamped to teach us, as Rashi explains, that the people were all united as one person with one heart. When the disciples of Rabbi Akiva demonstrated a lack of sensitivity to each other, being separate individuals instead of one heart, they became unworthy of being the transmitters of Torah and inheritors of the legacy of Aharon who fostered peace and love among Bnei Yisroel. Torah can only be received in unity.

These days became a period of mourning because we mourn the death of our tradition and, as Rabbi Hillel points out, the immeasurable amount of wisdom and Torah that was lost when these great men died, and the loss of so much of the oral tradition.

Let us return to that first period between Pesach and Shavuot. Hashem could have given us the Torah immediately after our redemption and the drowning of the Egyptian pursuers. But while Hashem had taken us out of Egypt, we had not taken Egypt out of ourselves and removed the layers of Egyptian depravity to reveal our inner sanctity. Those forty nine days, seven weeks, were our opportunity to improve ourselves. The Shvilei Pinchas, Rabbi Pinchas Friedman notes that the seven weeks of Sefirah correspond to the seven attributes of Hashem through which He manifests His presence in the world, the Sefirot of Kabala. Rabbi Friedman quotes the idea  that each week we are to focus on the corresponding attribute and improve ourselves in that area both in our relationships with others and in our relationship with God. For example, during the first week which corresponds to chessed, loving kindness, we should find ways to increase our acts and recognition of kindness. This was the attribute most closely associated with our first patriarch, Avraham, who is also the person corresponding to the first week of Sefirah. So we go through each week, culminating in Malchut, sovereignty, when we accept God’s sovereignty over us through His Torah.

Rabbi Friedman then cites the Bnei Yissaschar to expand this concept. Using Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers, he parallels the forty nine days of Sefirah with the trait of a lev tov, a good heart. This was the righteous path that Rabbi Elazar ben Arach suggested to his teacher, the great Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai accepted as all inclusive. Rabbi Friedman ties this in to our discussion by explaining that the numerical equivalent of lev tov is forty nine, with lev equaling thirty two and tov equaling seventeen. The heart is how we relate to others, and during the first thirty two days of Sefirah, we should focus on improving our interpersonal relations. Similarly, tov refers to Torah which is called lekach tov, a good lesson (portion, inheritance – similar to mesorah, depending on your translation), and implies focusing on those mitzvoth that form and solidify our relationship with Hakodosh Boruch Hu. Additionally, the thirty third word in the Torah is tov, reinforcing the custom of making the thirty third day of counting a day of celebration. The thirty third day, then, forms the link between the first thirty two and the last seventeen which will ultimately lead to God’s coronation on earth through His Torah and the people who taught its precepts to the world. However, this would not be possible without the link of the oral tradition, a link that was almost permanently broken with the death of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples.

Now we can begin to understand why Hashem meted out such harsh punishment to these great learned men. We are told that they did not interact with each other respectfully. Rabbi Yosef Fogel explains that this does not mean they were disrespectful. It means that on their level they would be expected to relate to each other with extra sensitivity, to compliment each other and encourage each other. This is where they were lacking. Because they themselves were on such a high spiritual level, they could not tolerate imperfection in others. They themselves may have been imperfect in another area. It is to this end of judging others favorably that we should use a mirror and turn the magnifying mirror on ourselves and the minimizing or standard mirror on others urges Rabbi Lugassi in Beyam Derech.

Our Sages tell us, “Derech Eretz kodmoh leTorah – Proper manners and courtesy precedes Torah.” Derech Eretz is not mentioned in the Torah because it is a prerequisite for Torah. If the disciples were lacking in this regard, how could they be the appropriate vehicles for the transmission of Torah?  Rav Mattisyahu Solomon uses this premise to compare Sefirah with the month of Elul. Both Sefirah and Elul culminate with the coronation of the King, Sefirah with our acceptance of Hashem’s sovereignty over Bnei Yisroel through our acceptance of the Torah on Shavuot, and Elul with coronation of Hashem as King over the world on Rosh Hashanah. In both times, we need to work on our middos to refine our character to be worthy of the big event. Without working on our character, no resolution we make will be fulfilled. As the Netivot Shalomsays, character is the root of our tree, and if our roots are bad, neither Torah nor anything else good will grow.

Identify one area of chessed you can devote yourself to during this season. In fact, we can connect everything we do to chessed and to Torah precepts. Even the job of paving roads can be elevated with the thought that you are keeping others from falling. The Chazon Ish taught his student that when it was necessary for him to be away from the yeshiva to tend to a hospital patient, he had the opportunity to work on his sensitivity to others, a prime precept in all of Torah.   In fact, the Chazon Ish notes, the ability to be able to enable Torah to become part of our beings, is through developing a sensitive soul. In another example, Rabbi Fogel discusses the experience of Rabbi Shmuel Rovovsky who was consulted regarding a young man in his yeshiva as a potential shidduch. All the requisite questions about learning and Torah observance were asked, but none were asked about the young man’s sensitivity and caring for others. Wasn’t being a mensch as important to the prospective bride’s father as his piety toward God?

Rather than thinking of the period between Pesach and Shavuot in totally negative terms of mourning and restrictions, we should consider this a time of great opportunity to perfect our middos so that we can become strong links to future generations in the mesorah of our parents and grandparents, all the way back to the time when Hashem transmitted the Torah to Moshe at Sinai.

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