Introduction: Are You Sure Lag B’omer Is a Holiday?
There is something quite odd about Lag B’omer.
First of all, it’s not even really a holiday. You won’t find Lag B’omer in the Torah or in the writings of the prophets or early sages. Lag B’omer as we know it today, is more like a custom that grew from humble origins into a very major, holiday-like day of great celebration.
Second, as a holiday, the central focus of Lag B’omer is on something that is virtually antithetical to Judaism—a person. Lag B’omer is primarily about one person, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Even Moses doesn’t get his own holiday.
Finally, today in Israel, Lag B’omer has become a celebration of absolutely Biblical proportions. On Lag B’omer, more people flock to the tiny mountain top hamlet of Meron where Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is buried than flowed to Max Yasgur’s farm for Woodstock. Every year, hundreds of thousands of Jews of every type, every age, religious and non-religious, from every background, and from around the world, flow to Meron on Lag B’omer.
Strange, wouldn’t you say?
To understand Lag B’omer, we will need to look deep beneath the surface to find out what is really going on. In fact, to understand Lag B’omer, we need to embark on an exploration of something that is defined by being “beneath the surface,” something hidden, something secretive. We are going to explore the world of Kabbalah. So, before we can even begin to describe what actually takes place on Lag B’omer, we will first take a peek at what’s going on behind the scenes. Only then will this holiday that isn’t exactly a holiday; this holiday that focuses primarily on a person and not God, this holiday that over the last thirty years has mushroomed into a massive celebration-pilgrimage-festival, finally be understood.
Lag B’omer Has Been Cancelled
Over the last five weeks, we have been forced to observe holidays in ways no one could have ever imagined. On Pesach, families were barred from sitting around the seder table together. On Yom Hazikaron, hundreds and hundreds of thousands were barred from visiting the graves of loved ones who died in defense of Israel. And for Yom Ha’atzmaut, we were in lockdown. And now, Lag B’omer has been cancelled.
This year, instead of 300,000 people flocking to Rebbe Shimon‑and I was really looking forward to taking my grandsons for their first time‑only 150 pre-screened people will be permitted entry. Just three measly fires will be kindled in Meron this year. And the tens of thousands of other bonfires across the country? They’ve all been doused, no fires allowed, anywhere. The American equivalent would be Super Bowl Sunday with 19 fans in the stadium and no Super Bowl parties allowed.
Corona has simply extinguished the flames of Lag B’omer, or has it?
Before trying to make some sense out of another Corona driven day that will turn our senses on their head, we’re going to need to look at …
A Very, Very Brief Overview of Kabbalah
The Kingdom of the Really Tiny Things
Lag B’omer and kabbalah go hand-in-hand. For that reason we need to think about some really tiny things, tinier even than a virus.
Your body is made up of two hands, two feet, two ear lobes, a heart, a brain, some hair, around 10,736 taste buds, a bunch of muscles, many buckets of water, and a lot, lot more. In the ancient world, the Greeks had this silly idea that every part of your body, and everything else in the world as well, was made up of very tiny particles that were invisible to the eye. They thought that beneath the surface of everything we can see and touch and smell is a whole other world of really tiny stuff: little itsy bitsy particles. And you know what? They were on to something. However, for the most part, their thinking got discarded along the road of history. Until, one day, we discovered the kingdom of the really tiny things.
In the kingdom of the really tiny things you have the basic building blocks of your hands, eyes, spleen, blood, lungs, fingernails and everything else. These are called molecules. Molecules are so tiny that if you were to hold just one coffee cup filled with molecules you would have more molecules in your hand then there are stars in the universe. Obviously, we can’t see molecules, but the reality is, without an understanding of what molecules are, our knowledge of how anything in the body works would be exceptionally limited. But molecules are just the beginning, because all molecules are made up of much, much tinier things called atoms. And of course, atoms too are just the beginning, because they too are made up of other super-tiny things; things like sub-atomic particles called protons, neutrons, quarks, bosons, and leptons. (Are we in Middle Earth?) And as for them, well, they aren’t really things at all; rather, according to current theory, they seem to be profoundly simple, symmetrical, wiggly strings of energy that are all some how made up of one another. (Yes. We are definitely in Middle Earth.)
Now, should you have an interest in learning about what goes on in the kingdom of the really tiny things, you will have to invest a lot of time in studying quantum and particle physics. Of course, before you can do that, it’s advisable that you begin with a course in physics; and a bit of background in addition, subtraction, biology, chemistry wouldn’t hurt. A visit to Gandalf might be a good idea as well.
Searching for the Lost Kingdom of Everything …
… On the Back Side of a T-shirt
Following a little ol’ achievement known as the General Theory of Relativity, in which a nice Jewish boy named Albert unified mass and energy in an equation simple enough to fit on a t-shirt—E=mc2—Einstein spent the rest of his life searching for something to put on the other side of that t-shirt. What he was searching for was a “unified theory” that would describe one grand, yet simple kingdom, that includes and harmonizes the other fundamental forces that were left out of Relativity.
Though Einstein was unsuccessful in his search to unify everything, the search for the lost kingdom of everything goes on. In fact, this search for a TOE, theory of everything, is the central driving force in the lives of many of today’s greatest physicists. In the words of Paul Davies:
“Most theoretical physicists believe that beneath the complex variety of natural phenomena that we observe there lies a deep and elegant mathematical unity. The ultimate hope is that this meta-unification will stem from a deep physical principle akin to Einstein’s, so we find that all the fundamental properties of the physical universe flow from a single simple reality statement. This vision matches John Wheeler’s closely. His hope is that underlying all physics will be a principle as simple as 0=0. So simple, in fact, that we will wonder why we have been so stupid as not to have seen it before.”
Toward a Unified Theory of Quantum Gravity
The Kingdom is an Orchard Called Kabbalah
Kabbalah is not a branch of quantum physics; it’s not biogenesis, molecular biology, or nanoscience. Kabbalah is, however, the JTOE—the Jewish Theory of Everything—and it does address the most fundamental questions that the leading minds in all of those fields are grappling with, and more.
Among other things, Kabbalah, in its own way, addresses some of the most fundamental and elusive questions about existence, including:
- How did all the countless somethings in the universe come from nothing?
- Are all of those somethings actually one thing?
- Is everything actually information, pure consciousness?
- What is the nature of the essential information that is the stuff of everything?
- Do human beings have a participatory role to play in the cosmos, or are we mere observers inhabiting a tiny spec in a minute corner of the universe?
This search for the Kingdom of Everything is, in essence, what kabbalah is about.
- Describes what took place, essentially, “before” the big bang.
- Addresses precisely how everything unfolded from that seminal first “moment” until today.
- Includes within its unified theory of everything, not only the outer, chitzoni “stuff” of the universe, but the p’nimi, the deepest forces that go far beyond the realm of matter. These “forces” include intention, “desire” (ratzon), ohr—the inner light—as well as purpose and meaning.
- Most importantly, kaballah invites us to participate and to contribute to the “completion” of creation.
The Orchard: Part I. The Early History of Kabbalah.
- The secrets of creation were first taught to Adam.
- In the words of the sages, Adam could “see from one end of the universe to the other.” No, he didn’t possess some long lost telescope technology, but he did have access to a world of knowledge that enabled him to comprehend things far beyond the mailbox at the entrance to the Garden of Eden.
- This knowledge was passed, secretly, from one enlightened master to another, and from generation to generation, until it reached Abraham.
- Eventually, this great knowledge was revealed in a broader fashion. This revelation was the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
- In addition to its written text, the Torah contains a hidden dimension called sōd, the secret dimension. Its’ more common name is kabbalah.
Era of Prophecy:
- For a thousand years after the giving of the Torah, people were able to reach a uniquely sublime spiritual state called prophecy.
- Kabbalah includes the secret knowledge and practices required to become a prophet.
- The Book of Creation, Sefer Yetzirah.
Sefer Yetzirah is an ancient Kabbalistic text containing highly detailed and esoteric guides to the kind of meditation that is part of the prophetic method as well as other mystical practices.
In the year, 2448 (1312 bce), God revealed the Torah to Moses and the Jewish people on Mt. Sinai. The Torah has two primary layers, one written and one oral. The Oral Torah was meant to be passed from teacher to student throughout the generations. However, due to the terrible vicissitudes of Jewish history, a decision was made to set the Oral Torah to writing. However, the Oral Torah itself is also multi-layered, and the deepest inner layer is known as sōd, the secret layer. Even after the writing of the Oral Torah, this secret layer remained hidden and only a very small number of outstanding individuals had access to its’ teachings.
“There exist three parts to the Torah: the Written Torah, the Oral Torah, and the Secrets of the Torah.” Proverbs 23:5, Commentary of the Vilna Gaon
Among the teachings in the secret Torah, is a description of both the “material” of the universe, what it’s made out of at its deepest pre-physical level, and the “tools” that were used to put everything together.
Related to this knowledge, on the practical level, is the knowledge and methodology for becoming a prophet. For a thousand years after the giving of the Torah, the secrets of the Kabbalah served as the gateway to achieving the sublime spiritual state of prophecy. Today, in the era of the restoration of the nation of Israel to the land of Israel, in a time when almost a million Jews once again call Jerusalem home—not just in our hearts and souls—but in the streets on which we tread, the earliest stirrings of the restoration of prophecy may also be under way.
A Matrix of Letters
(I) Letters: The spiritual raw material of creation.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
In Hebrew, the word that is translated as “the” is et. Et is spelled with two Hebrew letters; aleph, the first letter in the alphabet, and tav, the last letter in the alphabet. Thus, the opening line in the Torah can be read as follows:
“In the beginning, God created the aleph and the tav.”
This means that even before the heavens and the earth, the very first thing God created was the twenty-two letters of the alphabet: From aleph to tav. Then, from an infinite array of letter combinations and permutations, God brought forth everything else contained in all of creation.
(II) Letters: And the ten “words” of creation.
“The universe was created with ten utterances.” (Talmud, Avot)
Through the use of ten utterances, just ten Divine “words,” all of existence came to be. To build a house, a carpenter needs materials and tools. The material and tools that God used to fashion every solar system, and everything in them, was letters and words.
(III) Letters: Seminal concepts & primal forces.
After the exodus from Egypt, the Jews built a portable Temple called the Tabernacle, or Mishkan. Years later, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem became the permanent site of the Tabernacle.
Betzalel was the man in charge of building the Tabernacle in the dessert. The Talmud says, “Betzalel understood how to blend, merge and create compound letters in a manner similar to what God did when He used the letters to create the universe.”
Every letter contains countless layers of meaning, and each is also the source of a particular type of force or energy. The shape of each letter reflects an inner meaning; as does its sound, its numerical value, its position in the alphabet, its relationship to the mystical sefirot, and more. (Talmud, Zohar, R. Moshe Cordevero, Etz Chayim)
Hebrew letters are like holograms, only cooler. Every Hebrew letter is a multi-dimensional cluster of interrelated bits of knowledge and wisdom that emit a specific type of creative energy.
Imagine handing a bunch of tightly packed snowballs to native tribesman in the Amazon rainforest. They certainly know what water is, because it rains every day where they live, though none of them has ever seen snow or ice. In fact, they’ve never even experienced a cold day. Now imagine telling them that the snowballs they are holding and feeling are water. They would think you are crazy. Water is liquid; you can drink it, it flows in rivers, and falls from the sky in little droplets. These ball things our tribesman are being introduced to are hard, cold, and have far more in common with stones than with water. The truth, however, is that the hard cold rock called a snowball, and a glass of water, are actually the same thing. They are both H2O. Two hydrogen atoms plus one oxygen atom equals one molecule of water. Expose water to a low enough temperature and voila, you’ve got ice. Raise the temperature high enough and poof, steam. Huge floating chunks of H2O? Those would be icebergs. Giant collections of H2O outside your airplane window? Those would be clouds. On the surface, all of these things appear to be very different, but if you understand what they are at a deeper level, then you know that they are all one in the same, it’s just that under different conditions water molecules act differently and present themselves differently, though they always remain true to their deeper, essential identity.
Reading the Substrate Text of the Universe
The Kabbalistic understanding of the nature of all physical things is that beneath the surface, everything has a basic, pre-physical, molecular-like structure that isn’t made of atoms, but rather of words and letters. The “words” that are the building blocks of everything in the universe are sort of like spiritual molecules, and the “letters” that make up these words are like atoms. The deepest sub-atomic “particles” of these letters and words are seminal concepts, ideas and principles. The underlying matrix out of which all physicality emerges is a transcenedent consciousness. So, in essence, everything around us is a physical manifestation of an underlying text. And, just like the molecular text of H2O will manifest differently under different conditions, the same is true with the spiritual subtext.
An example of this is Shabbat and Jerusalem. Just like water and ice are H2O, Shabbat and Jerusalem share an identical underlying spiritual structure. The difference between them is that one exists in the dimension of time, and the other in the dimension of space. Shabbat is a day, but if it were to morph into a city, it would be Jerusalem. And, Shabbat isn’t simply the seventh day of the week, another day more or less like the other six. Rather, Shabbat is qualitatively different from every other day; it stands on its own, endowed with a unique spirituality not available at any other time of the week. So too Jerusalem: Jerusalem isn’t just another city, it’s qualitatively different from every other city; it stands on its own, endowed with a unique spirituality not available anywhere else in the world. Shabbat and Jerusalem are the same thing, just different.
Similar to the way that chemistry and physics reveal the inner workings of the physical dimension of existence, Kabbalah reveals the inner workings of the spiritual dimension of existence. Kabbalah also explains how this hidden dimension impacts our personal lives and the course of history.
Which brings us to prophecy.
Wanna’ Be a Prophet?
For a thousand years after the giving of the Torah, kabbalistic wisdom was passed orally, and secretly, from learned masters to small groups of disciples. This was an era in Jewish history when, as a result of living in the land of Israel, and having the Temple in Jerusalem functioning as our collective spiritual heart beat, that the most profound heights of closeness to God were open and available to people in a way that no longer exists. During that time, people were as keenly aware of their souls longing and reaching for God, as we are of our longing to ascend the ladder of professional accomplishment. It was second nature for people to strive for a profound relationship with God. Meditation, and deep personal prayer were intrinsic to Jewish life. In this spiritually focused society, people were able to reach a uniquely sublime spiritual state called prophecy. Prophecy is the highest spiritual state that can be achieved by a human being.
Kabbalah contains the secret knowledge and practices required to become a prophet. Though there were very few written texts of this esoteric knowledge, there did exist a manuscript called sefer yitzirah, The Book of Creation. Its authorship is accredited to Abraham, and it contains highly sophisticated, letter and word-centered guides to the kind of meditation that is part of the prophetic method as well as other mystical practices.
Prophets understand how to “read” the beneath-the-surface text of the world. In the highest experience of prophecy, during a dream-like state of altered consciousness, a man or woman is granted a higher vision of things as they are, as they might be, and as they may become. In this vision, the prophet sees various images or scenes and their deep knowledge of the substrate text of the universe enables them to decipher the message behind the image. Then, after emerging from their altered state of consciousness, the prophet is able to translate his or her vision into a more down-to-earth language so that ordinary average guys can understand it.
It’s important to understand that the attainment of the state of prophecy is not dependent on knowledge alone. Knowledge must be coupled with a person who possesses not only exceptional understanding, but exceptional character as well. The marriage of deep knowledge to beautifully refined character can elevate and prepare a person for a quality of perception that pierces the many veils through which one normally sees the world. The techniques and practices that enable a person to reach this state include a step-by-step refinement of ones character, the cultivation of a calm inner joy, an expanded consciousness stirred by music, and reflective, meditative listening to the neshama—the deepest inner essence of one’s self—and the inner melodic stirrings of existence at its many levels. We’ll delve more into deep listening soon.
The Orchard: Part I. Kabbalah, The Talmudic Period
- Rabbi Akiva. Pardes, the Orchard of Secrets.
- Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.
Era of Secrecy:
- Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai
- From Rabbi Shimon to Tsfat and Ari
The Spiritual Fabric of Life
Today, one can’t imagine Judaism and Jewish communal life without synagogues, schools, summer camps, JCC’s, and kollels. Well, that’s how things used to be with prophecy and deep personal spirituality. For almost two millennia, Jews were very attuned to their souls, naturally and actively strove for a deep connection to God, and lived with a keen awareness that reality and life were far deeper than what they appeared to be.
Back then, prophets, the Temple in Jerusalem, and personal meditation were all integral parts of the fabric of life for the Jewish nation. One didn’t need to be inspired to search for God, or to be cajoled into attending High Holy Day services. There was no need to build synagogues where people could go to feel Gods presence and pray, because awareness of God and personal expressions of prayer were self-evident parts of what it meant to be alive. Soon, however, prophecy and much of what was normative spiritual consciousness would recede deep into the background of everyday life.
The Twilight of Prophecy
In the year 422bc, the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, and the Jewish people was driven into exile. In addition to all the horrors that accompanied the destruction, the loss of the Temple had devastating spiritual ramifications. With the exile of the Jewish nation from Israel, our collective inner connection to Shechina was shredded, our intuitively deep awareness of God was dimmed, and the wellspring of spirituality necessary for prophecy ran dry.
In the ensuing centuries, Kabbalistic knowledge all but exited the stage of Jewish history. All that remained were very small, secretive societies where the knowledge was passed from one teacher, to one student at a time.
Almost a century after the destruction, the Temple was rebuilt. However, most of the Jews remained in exile and the lofty spiritual state of the Temple, and the nation, was never fully restored. Over the next five centuries, the great sages of the Jewish people laid down the foundations of the Talmud*, the magnum opus of the Jewish people that word carry Jewish law, study, thinking, practice and life into the future. These sages of the Talmudic era were also the ones who still possessed the secret knowledge of Kabballah. It was they who planted the seeds of all Kabbalistic knowledge that has endured until this day. The two individuals who were most responsible for ensuring that this secret knowledge would endure forever, were Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
From Rabbi Akiva to Rabbi Shimon
Of all the sages quoted in the Talmud, none is more well known, and none had a greater impact on Jewish history, than Rabbi Akiva. He was a legendary, larger-than-life figure in his own time, and lives on as a vital source of inspiration to this very day. Rabbi Akiva lived when the Romans were dominant in Jerusalem. He was the pre-eminent sage of his time, lived through the destruction of the Second Temple, was the leading backer of the failed Bar Kochva revolt, and was eventually murdered by the Romans for the crime of teaching Torah. At its height, his academy had 24,000 scholar-students. Tragically, those students all died in a terrible epidemic. In the aftermath of that awful event, though he was quite elderly and living in the shadow of a ruthless Roman regime that targeted teachers of Torah for persecution, Rabbi Akiva handpicked five scholars as his personal disciples. Together, against all odds, they would rebuild.
More than anyone else, Rabbi Akiva and these five are the bedrock upon which all of Jewish history was constructed after the destruction of the Temple. That handful of scholars became the foundation upon which virtually the entire Talmud was built. And, from amongst them, there emerged one who would also become the foundation of all future knowledge of Kabbalah. This one was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. In terms of the chain of kabbalistic tradition and teaching that stretches back to Sinai, Rabbi Shimon stands out as the most important, and pivotal figure in the historical story of kabbalah. However, before we get to know Rabbi Shimon, let’s get to know his teacher, Rabbi Akiva, a little better.
The Orchard: Part III. Rabbi Akiva and the Secret Path
In the Orchard of Secrets
The Talmud gives us glimpses of Rabbi Akiva’s lofty kabbalistic knowledge:
- The Orchard. The Talmud tells us of a place called Pardes, the Orchard. In reality, this is not a “place” at all, but rather, a state of exceptionally elevated consciousness that can only be reached via the deepest, most subtle path of contemplation and meditation. This Orchard-place is, in a sense, profoundly connected to the core underlying spiritual forces of reality. Going there isn’t just every kabbalistic masters idea of a relaxing way to spend a weekend; it’s a mission, part of the process of having a positive, powerful, healing impact on the world at its deepest root level. The Talmud says that the only man capable of leading others to this deepest of “places” was Rabbi Akiva.
We are told that Rabbi Akiva once led three outstanding sages on a mission deep into the Orchard. There, once they reached their destination, they were to affect positive, corrective, spiritual corrections at the deepest level of existence. We know almost nothing of their “travels,” but what we do know, is that Rabbi Akiva gave them very specific instructions of the types of thoughts they were, and were not, supposed to contemplate during their journey. We also know that attempting to access such a deep place is not only very difficult, but actually fraught with danger. Unfortunately, their trip didn’t go so well. The Talmud says that of the four, one went mad, one severed his relationship to God, one died, and only Rabbi Akiva emerged “whole.”
- Letters, Crowns and Moses.
The Talmud also tells us that Rabbi Akiva was the preeminent master of understanding the hidden, mystical meanings of the Hebrew letters. He authored an esoteric work known as Rabbi Akiva’s Letters.
- While we know that every letter is actually a gateway to multiple realms of insight, there is a specific part of the letters that contain the deepest of the deep secrets: the crowns. When a scribe writes a Torah scroll, the letters include certain flourishes that to the untrained eye appear to be mere artistic embellishments. In fact, those crowns, those elements of the letters that reach beyond the actual shape of the letters, are actually portals to a dimension of understanding that transcends the letters themselves. The Talmud says that Rabbi Akiva had an understanding of these crowns that went even deeper than the understanding of Moses.
- Finally, you will recall that the oldest kabbalistic text about the meanings of the letters is an ancient work written by Abraham called Sefer Yetzirah. Well, according to some scholars, while all of the principles and concepts in Sefer Yetzirah were originally taught by Abraham, they were only later put into manuscript form by, you guessed it, Rabbi Akiva.
Seeing What No One Else Could See.
The following are brief summaries of four other iconic stories from the life of Rabbi Akiva.
- At the age of forty, Rabbi Akiva was an unlearned shepherd. One day, he saw that water, dripping onto a rock, had worn a hole through the hard stone. And so he figured, if droplets of water could wear through a stone, then the letters of Torah could eventually make an impression on an ignorant person like himself.
- Rabbi Akiva’s marriage was somewhat of a scandal. He was an unlearned shepherd, and his wife, Rachel, was the daughter of one of the most prominent men of the time. For marrying Akiva, Rachel’s father cut her off. Rachel however believed in the water-on-rock potential of her husband.
- After the destruction of the Temple, Rabbi Akiva was walking with a group of sages. When they saw the ruins of the Temple, they all began to cry, accept for Rabbi Akiva, who laughed. This would be like visiting Auschwitz and laughing at the sight of the infamous Arbet Macht Frei gate at the entrance to the camp. But Rabbi Akiva explained himself to his dumbfounded colleagues: “If the prophecy of destruction came to be, then certainly the prophecies of the redemption will also come to pass.” To which they responded, “Akiva, you have comforted us.”
- In the end, the great teacher was tortured to death in front of his students. While his skin was being flayed from his body, Rabbi Akiva was immersed in a deep recitation of the Shema. “But how?” his stunned and broken hearted students asked. And his astonishing reply: “All my life I waited for an opportunity to attach myself to God in total love, and this is it.”
Rabbi Akiva’s life is the story of a man who saw vast potential, a brilliant future, and remarkable opportunity where others saw darkness, destruction and death. The man who saw in life what no one else could see, was also the man who’s mind’s eye could see in the Torah that which was hidden to others. And Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, well, he was indeed a disciple of the highest order.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the Next Link
With the death of Rabbi Akiva, the spiritual torch of Jewish history was passed to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. While he also lived in the shadow of brutal Roman persecution of scholars and teachers, eventually Rabbi Shimon would author the Zohar. The Zohar became the seminal text for all future kabbalistic knowledge, study and teaching.
The Story of Rabbi Shimon: Background
At Mount Sinai, God offered the Torah to the Jewish nation, and they—“like one person with one heart”— accepted. Then, Moses spent forty days on the mountain learning the Torah that he would convey to the people. For forty days, Moses didn’t eat or drink. For everyone we know, forty days without food and water would be more than enough to kill a person, but not Moses. Would you like to know why? You see, this wasn’t just another one of God’s super-duper miracles, this phenomenon was the result of the exceptionally rarefied state of spirituality that Moses achieved. Here is how that worked.
Each one of us has both a body and a soul, and both the spiritual and the physical dimensions to who we are require nourishment, though not the same kind of nourishment. The sort of nutrients our bodies require are derived from foods like hamburgers, falafel, tofu, broccoli and Cherry Garcia ice cream. The sort of nutrients our souls require are derived from acts of compassion and kindness, prayer, meditation, mitzvot, and Torah study. Now imagine that your entire “self” is fifty-percent spiritual and fifty-percent physical. In that case, half of the nutrients you require would be physical; food, water, sleep, and the occasional shower, while the rest of the nutrients would have to be spiritual. Moses, however, had so thoroughly refined his being that his “self” was something like ninety-eight percent spiritual and just two percent physical. Even the physicality of Moses’ body became almost spiritual in nature. The result was that, at least for the time he was on Sinai, Moses barely required any physical nutrients at all, even his body was nourished by the ohr, the spiritual light in which he was bathed while on Sinai, and which he would radiate from that time forth.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was able to ascend the ladder of spiritual elevation to the point where the barriers separating the everyday physical world from the deeper, more ephemeral spiritual world, became very tenuous. As the man who would reveal the dimension of Torah that reaches far beneath the surface of reality, in Moses-like fashion, he too had a unique experience of transcendence and revelation that echoes until today, in fact, now louder than ever. This is his story—
The Story of Rabbi Shimon: In the Cave
Rabbi Shimon’s teacher and guide, Rabbi Akiva, was murdered by the Romans. In time, a Roman death warrant was issued against Rabbi Shimon, causing him and his son Elazar to flee. Eventually they found a well-hidden cave where they could hunker down for the long haul. There, in quarantine that cave became the place for a new revelation. For years, Rabbi Shimon and his son immersed themselves in studying the secrets of the Torah. They also spent long stretches of time engaged in deep prayer and esoteric meditations. In a fashion akin to what Moses achieved, they reached a spiritual state where they were far more attached to their souls than they were to their bodies. As a result, spiritual worlds and experiences opened up to them. Just outside their cave, there appeared a carob tree and a spring of water. These provided all the physical nourishment they would require over the thirteen years they spent in the cave. Also during that period, they practically divested themselves of their bodies altogether. Each day they would undress, bury themselves in the sand up to their necks and spend the day in study, prayer, and meditation. Only on Shabbat, a day which itself is less attached to the physical world than every other day, did they emerge, dress, and live in the world of the elevated seventh day.
Over the course of those years, they were able to experience mystical visitations from Elijah the Prophet who taught them new layers of understanding in the kabbalistic levels of the Torah. I suspect he also taught them the art of deep listening. Everything that Rabbi Shimon learned from Elijah, he later taught to a very small, secret circle of disciples. Everything he taught was preserved by his students, and their students, in the great mystical work, the Zohar.
The Orchard: Part IV. Ohr Ha’ganuz
The Zohar is far more than a text book of the deepest kabbalistic wisdom. It actually has an active, dynamic role to play in the unfolding journey of the Jewish people through history. To understand the role of the Zohar in history, we will need to take a look at three basic kabbalistic concepts; the first is what’s known as the ohr ha’ganuz, the historical dynamic of the “hidden light.” The other two are known as the Awakening from Above, Itaruta d’Layla, and the the Awakening from Below, Itaruta d’Ltata. The Awakening from Above and the Awakening from Below represent the most critical spiritual forces in human history. They are two sides of the same mystical coin, and together represent the relationship between God and the Jewish people in moving history from a place of darkness to a place of light. I will try to explain.
Have you ever played peek-a-boo with a toddler? You know how it goes, you cover your eyes, say “Oh no, wheeere am I?” and then quickly uncover your eyes and exclaim, “here I am.” The child bursts out laughing at your sudden reappearance and then says, “again!” They absolutely love it, and this can go on for hours. Well, you want to know a little kabbalistic secret? The whole purpose of creation, and the entire process of human history, is one big game of peek-a-boo. Here is how peek-a-boo is played on the cosmic scale—
When God created, He did far more than just whip up a whole universe full of awesome stuff. The essence of creation, what makes it meaningful, and not just stunning, is the possibility for something other than God, to experience God. The soul of the universe is the possibility for limited, finite, little human beings like you and I, to have a relationship with that which lays beyond even the infinite, with God.
On the first day of creation God said, “Let there be light.” Okay, seems straight forward, until you get to the fourth day of creation. There you will find that God created the sun, moon and the stars. That’s odd. If all the sources of light didn’t exist until day four, what exactly was that light that was created on the first day? That question is what much of Kabbalah is about. It turns out the “light” of the first day is very different from the kind of light that comes from the sun, the stars, and flashlight apps. That original “light” is referring to the presence of God in creation in a way that He can be experienced, and with which we can have a relationship. This presence of God is called ohr aiyn sof, the Endless Light.
It is with this spiritual light that God, on the stage of human history, plays Peek-a-Light. We are now going to look at how peek-a-light is works, but first, a bit of background.
Relationship: The Reason For Peek-a-Light
For any relationship to be genuine and meaningful, it needs to be chosen. If a relationship is forced or coerced, that’s simply not a relationship at all. God wants people to be able to freely choose to have a relationship with Him, and so, this requires the hiding of his great light. You see, if God’s light were to always be shinning at its full spiritual wattage, then you couldn’t miss it. At that intensity of “brightness,” everyone would be clearly aware of God’s presence in the world, everyone would clearly understand that nothing could be more pleasurable, meaningful and momentous than being closely connected to God, and everyone would be naturally drawn to the light. The problem with that is that there would be no freedom to choose otherwise; the relationship would be forced, not chosen and genuine. So, what’s a God to do? Answer: Ohr Ha’ganuz, dim the light.
This is exactly what God was doing when He created our universe. While God’s light was fully present at the beginning of creation, with each successive day, He draped another veil of physicality over His light. The creation of the universe was the creation of the perfect balance of light and darkness required for people to be able to freely choose to move towards the light, rather than being overwhelmed by its breath-taking, irresistible presence. People therefore possess the ability to either choose light, or darkness; to build a relationship with God, or to become estranged, to add light, goodness, and beauty to the world, or the opposite. Unfortunately, in the opening scenes of human history, people chose a lot of darkness. And so, there became a need for the introduction of an entire people into the midst of human history, a nation that would be tasked with being a source of light for all mankind. Want to guess the name of that people?
Light and the Jewish People
The following, in a nutshell, is the story of light and its relationship to the Jewish nation.
- The Talmud teaches that the original great light of creation shone for thirty-six hours, and then it was hidden so that people would have the ability to make choices that would either slowly bring the light back into the world, or drive it further and further into hiding. In essence, this made people nothing less than partners with God in bringing creation to completion and ultimate fulfillment. Yes, partners with God, and that’s big, really big.
- With time, as a result of the choices people made, God’s light became more and more hidden, and the world became a very dark place. Until—
“The earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the surface of the depths … and God said, ‘Let there be light.’” (Genesis 1:2-3)
“Abraham is the light. The generations preceding Abraham were unformed and dark, and Abraham was the light of existence.” (Maharal. 16th century scholar and mystic.)
- Abraham was born into a world thoroughly steeped in paganism; a world in which people saw no higher purpose in life, where fate, destiny, and fickle gods ruled the day, where no one thought that their choices mattered or made a difference, and where human sacrifice abounded. With the appearance of Abraham, hope for mankind was rekindled. Abraham was able to see through the veils of darkness, and to reintroduce light into the world.
- From Abraham and his wife Sarah, there grew a family that eventually became the people of Israel. This people soon found itself in a place shrouded in dark, stifling chitzoniut, a place called Egypt. The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, means “tight, restricted and closed in.” Egypt was a dark, brutal, decadent place that threatened to smother the light bearers of history. Until—
“With the hidden light, God nourishes the world.” (Zohar)
“When Moses was born, the entire house became filled with light.” (Rashi)
Moses, like Abraham, was profoundly connected to the light. Eventually he would lead the Jewish nation to the very source of the light in this world.
- Moses led the Jewish people to Mount Sinai. There, as the descendants of Abraham, they would receive the source of light, the Torah, their means to illuminate the world.
“For the commandment is a candle, and the Torah is light.” (Proverbs 6:23)
“The light created on the first day was hidden in the Torah itself.” (Baal Shem Tov)
“The hidden light of creation was restored and revealed through the first set of tablets.” (Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Ari. 16th century Kabbalist)
“I am God; I called you for the purpose of righteousness … and I made you a covenant people, to be a light to the nations.” (Isaih 42:6)
“The purpose of creation could not be fulfilled until the Jewish nation left Egypt and received the Torah at Sinai. It was then that they would achieve the potential for being a ‘light to the nations’ and bring an awareness of God to the entire world.” (Netziv, 19th century scholar. Introduction to Exodus.)
- And so, what began with one man, Abraham, would take the form of his descendants, the Jewish people, who slowly, and against all odds, would become an ongoing source of light for the world. Consider the following—
“The Jews started it all—and by “it” I mean so many of the things we care about, the underlying values that make all of us, Jew and Gentile, believer and atheist, tick. Without the Jews, we would see the world through different eyes, even feel with different feelings … and think with a different mind … We would set a different course for our lives. There is simply no one else remotely like them.” (Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews)
“They were the first to arrive at an abstract notion of God. No other people has produced a greater impact from such comparatively insignificant origins and resource…” (J.M. Roberts, History of the World)
“Judaism invented the idea of mankind as an entity … the idea of a single God, which was a revolutionary and bizarre idea at the time … [Judaism] figured that if there is only one God, it must be everybody’s God … the idea that ethical ideas apply to everybody … respect for life, respect for justice, kindness to animals … the revolutionary idea that there is not just one God, but one Man, one mankind …” (David Gerlertner, author, artist, Yale University professor of computer sciences. Is Western Civilization a Jewish Invention? Bigthink.com)
“But then the Jews invented a new idea of time, which has been adopted by all modern societies: They were the first to imagine a time when justice would be established, when the desert would become fertile [this was] the beginning of a new tradition of dreaming about the future.” (Theodore Zeldin, An Intimate History of Humanity)
“Certainly the world without the Jews would have been a radically different place. To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of the collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without the Jews it might have been a much emptier place.” (Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews)
- Finally, as history moves towards its crescendo, the scattered Jewish people will return to the land of Israel, and to Zion, the city of Jerusalem, and—
“A new light will shine on Zion.” (Daily prayer book)
“The light that will shine on Zion is none other than the hidden light of creation.” (Yacov Emden, 18th century German scholar)
Peek-a-Boo, Peek-a-Light, and …
- God hides, mankind seeks, and the role of the Jewish nation is to be trailblazers in the search for, and revelation of, the hidden light.
- The Zohar, and all the tributaries of kabbalistic knowledge that branch off it, plays an active and critical role in the process of revealing the light.
- The wisdom of the kabbalah, when studied and applied in the proper manner, creates a spiritual force that fuels the Jewish people’s ability to draw the light of Godliness into the world. And that, brings us to the principles of …
… Awakening From Above, Awakening From Below
Back in the day, when the Jews were slaves in Egypt, mean old Pharaoh finally went too far, and God got… well, let’s just say that He had had enough. So out of His galaxy sized bag of tricks, God pulled out the most overwhelming set of ten plagues anyone has ever see, before or since. With his hand twisted painfully behind his back, Pharaoh finally acquiesced and sent the Jews on their way. Soon, however, Pharaoh had a change of heart, jumped into his trusty chariot, and led his army in hot pursuit of the Jews. In a matter of days, the Egyptians had the Jews pinned with their backs against the sea, which was right where God wanted them. You know what happens next, right? God told Moses to lead the people into the sea, the sea split, the Jews made it safely to the other side, the Egyptian army pursued, the sea closed in around them, and that was that.
The Exodus from Egypt, and the splitting of the sea, are the quintessential example of an Awakening From Above. If history unfolds on a stage, then in Egypt God stepped out from behind the curtain, and took over the show. This was the I’m-the-Creator-of-the-Universe-and-You-Better-Get-Out-of-My-Way Show. God dazzled, Pharaoh got flattened, and the Jewish nation was born.
Seven weeks later, the Jewish people stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, the heavens opened, God gave us the Torah, and that changed everything. The holiday that celebrates that momentous event is Shavuot. In the prayers for the holiday, Shavuot is referred to as, “the time of the giving of our Torah.” The Kabbalists focus on the words “our Torah,” and tell us that this is an allusion to the principle of the Awakening From Below. You see, at Sinai, God didn’t just give us our very own signed, personal copy a book of wisdom and instructions for living called the Torah, rather, what took place was an actual transference of ownership. At a very deep level, what took place on Sinai was this—
A Transference of Power
As you will recall (I hope), the “tools” that God used to create the universe were the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. There is actually more to that concept than was mentioned earlier. You see, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai taught that:
“God looked into the Torah and created the world.” (Zohar)
This means that, in a sense, the Torah preceded creation. Think of how a house is built. The very first step in building a house is the actual interest in having a house in the first place. Whether the house is being built by people who want to live in it, or a developer who wants to sell it, the building process begins with someone wanting a house. It all begins with an idea. This general idea of wanting a house then takes more shape as the mind behind the idea begins to think about what type of house will be built, how many bedrooms it will have, and where the sauna and stadium size flat screen TV will go. Eventually, all of this thinking is transferred onto a set of plans called blueprints. Then, with blueprints in hand, the builder can get to work. When construction is complete, if all goes well, the result will be a house that is a perfect expression of the ideas and concepts that were represented on those blueprints.
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai taught us that the Torah was the blueprint, the primordial knowledge that was the earliest roots of creation. Our universe is that information come to life. With that in mind, let’s think again about what took place at Sinai.
Today, one of the most prominent teachers making authentic kabbalah accessible to both scholars and laymen in Israel is Rabbi Reuven Sasson. The following is my loose adaptation of what Rabbi Sasson says in Talelei Chayim: Mikdosh Melech about the Awakening From Above, the Awakening From Below, and how everything changed at Sinai.
- “God’s primordial “Endless, Infinite Light,” transcends this world, and can not be contained, in its fullness, within this world. Therefore, when God created the universe, He introduced His light in a way that it could be present even in this finite, physical world. That this-worldly manifestation of the light, is the Torah itself …”
- “The Torah is to the world, what the soul is to the human being. It’s the essence, and the source of meaning. The soul is expressed through a persons deepest desires, and manifest in thought, speech and action. The light of the Torah is also manifest in various dimensions of this world.”
- The letters and words of the Torah are the materials and tools of creation; they are the forces that give rise to everything.
- “The Divine ‘will, word, and creative act,’ are all contained, so to speak, within the light of the Torah.”
- “Prior to Sinai, the creative forces of history were in the realm of the Awakening From Above.”
- When God gave the Torah to the nation of Israel, He transferred to them the creative power inherent in the Torah. This was the birth of the Awakening From Below, the passing of the creative forces of history into the hands of the Jewish people.”
- “And with this, came fantastic responsibility. For the very fulfillment, rectification, and completion of creation was placed in their hands.”
- “From the moment of the giving of the Torah onward, it was as if God was saying to the Jewish people, ‘the keys are now in your hands. Until now, history—the unfolding of creation—had been primarily guided from Above. Now, for the most part, it would be guided from Below, by you. You will lead, you will create, and I, by and large, will follow your lead.’”
- Pre-Sinai, there was one dominant actor in history. Post-Sinai, there are two. The giving of the Torah was a transference of power. It was the creation of a cosmic partnership. And that, changed everything.
Two Dimensions, To Everything
“The Torah that Moses received was written, black fire upon white fire.” (Zohar)
The Torah has two dimensions, outer and inner, revealed and hidden. The same is true for the world that was created via the Torah; earth and heaven, external physical, and inner spiritual, darkness and light. So too each of us, outer and inner, revealed and hidden, body and soul.
The Jewish people are the light bearers of the world. At times we may succeed, at others we fail, but that is always our mission, to reveal the hidden, the spiritual, the light. Just like the Torah was the means through which the world was created, it is also the means through which we bring the light into the world. And that too, operates on two levels, outer and inner.
The relationship of the Jewish people to God, and the world, is defined through our relationship to the Torah. As a people, we not only study the Torah, we bring it to life through our thoughts, words and actions. Within the Torah you will find not just the famous Ten Commandments, but actually six hundred and thirteen commandments: six hundred thirteen ways to keep the darkness at bay, and turn up the light.
Every commandment, like every letter in the Torah, also has an outer and an inner dimension. The outer dimension is the basic living of the commandments. Whether it’s caring for those who are vulnerable; the poor, the stranger, widows and orphans; or it’s eating matzah, hearing a shofar or observing Shabbat; eating kosher food, honoring our parents, placing a mezuzah on our doorpost or any other commandment, the fulfillment of every commandment brings light into the world. The commandments not only reveal their own uniquely healthy, restorative light, they also elevate each individuals—and the entire nation’s—capacity to be a source of light. That’s on the outer level. But there is a deeper, inner dimension as well.
Kaballah, the inner, secret dimension of the Torah also encompasses the commandments. Every commandment, in addition to its exterior identity, also has a deep inner world. Much of what the kabbalistic wisdom addresses is understanding the hidden layers within every commandment, and how to access their deepest light in such a way that they have the most profound impact possible on creation.
The Awakening From Below—the Itaruta d’Ltata—is effected by how we live. The light that we bring into the world acts as an invitation, so to speak, to The Awakening From Above— Itaruta d’Layla. That, in essence, is the spiritually symbiotic relationship between God, the Jewish people, and creation. Through our living of the Torah, we create receptacles capable of receiving and storing light. And the from Above, the Endless, Infinite Light is able to flow and find a place in this world; a place to be present and manifest, to nourish and to heal.
And that, my friends is what Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai taught us about the underlying meaning of Jewish history. It’s all about the Light; about a fusion of the Awakening From Below and the Awakening From Above, the outer and the inner, the body and the soul. It’s about drawing the heavens down so that they can kiss the earth. Exile was a fragmentation of our ability to draw the light into the world—to repair and to elevate—and geula, redemption, is a piecing together of that remarkable potential.
The Orchard: Part V. The Heavenly Jerusalem
Jerusalem and Redemption: Where Heaven Touches Earth
In the time of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jewish people were driven into exile. That exile, however, is now drawing to a close. What once seemed the stuff of hopeless prayers and impossible dreams, is now unfolding before our very eyes; the Jewish people are returning home, to the land of Israel, and the city of Jerusalem.
According to deep, ancient teachings, just like there are two dimensions to Torah, the world and people, the same is true with Jerusalem. There is an outer, earthly Jerusalem, and an inner, heavenly Jerusalem.
The culmination of Jewish history is also the culmination of world history. The great crescendo of history is when all the veils are finally pulled back, when the light of the “heavenly” Jerusalem shines through the earthly Jerusalem, and from there, radiates out to every corner of the world. And the key to unlocking all that light lies within the Zohar—
“With this, the Book of the Zohar, the nation will be redeemed from exile.” (Zohar)
“There are many ways through which the Jewish people rectify the great darkness of exile, and restore light to the world. Over and above them all is the Zohar, for it is the very essence of the inner light, and its slow revelation throughout history is the very revelation of the light itself, the key to redemption, and the key to fixing all that is broken in the world.” (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, 18th century kabbalist.)
“It appears that we have arrived at the time prophesied by Amos (8:11): ‘Days are coming—declares Hashem my God—when I will send a famine upon the land; not a hunger for bread or a thirst for water, but for hearing the words of Hashem.’ And so there are many Torah students that are knocking on the bais medrash doors and asking, ‘Open the doorway for us so that we may merit to taste tamei Torah—[the inner meaning of Torah]—that stem from the Etz Chayim [of the Ari z”l]’” Rav Moshe Shapira zt’l, Rosh Yeshiva, Shev Shmatata, Approbation to R. Chaim Vital, Otzrot Chayim Ha’mevuar, Vol. I
“Redemption depends on the study of Kabbalah.” (Vilna Gaon, Even Shleima 11:3)
“The secrets of the Torah bring redemption, they bring the nation back to the land.” (Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak ha’kohen Kook.)
The Story of Rabbi Shimon: Life After the Cave
Rabbi Shimon and his son spent thirteen years in a cave, hiding from the Romans, and unearthing the very deepest levels of Torah. With the emergence of Rabbi Shimon from the cave, and his gathering of a small group of students, the secrets of Torah would be spread wider than before.
Though still a relatively small group, the very fact that it was a group at all, meant that the great light of kaballah was now reaching further into the world than it had before. This academy of kabbalists was the beginning of a new era of Awakening From Below, a new age for spreading the light and its healing power in a dark and broken world. Though the Temple and Jerusalem had just recently been destroyed, and though two thousand years of terrible exile was just beginning, Rabbi Shimon’s new dissemination of kaballah was already beginning the process of kindling the light of redemption. It would still take two millennia for the redemptive light to begin to glow brightly, but already then, a historic corner had been turned.
Rabbi Shimon’s teacher was Rabbi Akiva, the man who saw potential, hope, and promise where others saw only destruction and darkness. Like a true disciple, Rabbi Shimon, through his teaching of kabbalah, and through the writing of the Zohar, became the pivotal figure who created the path, hidden though it was, that would eventually lead the Jewish nation out of great darkness and into the world of redemption, and light.
The Story of Rabbi Shimon: To Value and Love Every Jew
As we have seen, the story of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is intertwined with that of his teacher, Rabbi Akiva. They faced Roman oppression, witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem, were masters of kabbalah, and together created the foundations of the Talmud. There is another common thread that they share: For both, the value of appreciating, valuing and loving every Jew was central to who they were, and what they taught. Let’s take a brief look at how these values manifest in each of their lives.
First, Rabbi Akiva:
- Love your neighbor: Rabbi Akiva taught that of all the commandments in the Torah, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” is the single most important, over-arching principle in all of Jewish life.
- Honor and respect: You will recall that all of Rabbi Akiva’s students died in a terrible epidemic. According to tradition, the cause of that deadly outbreak was not a failure to properly wash their hands or practice social distancing, but rather a failure to value and respect one another.
The epidemic began on the first day of the Omer and lasted for thirty-two days. The thirty-third day, was the first day without any deaths. In Hebrew, thirty-three is lag, as in Lag B’omer.
- Rebuilding: It seems that the man who valued Love Your Neighbor so highly, had failed to adequately instill that lesson in his students. It is also clear that no matter how accomplished students and scholars may be, that a deficiency in their respect and love for one another, is a fatal flaw in their being able to be links in the great chain of Torah that stretches throughout Jewish history.
Following the calamity of the epidemic, as much as Rabbi Akiva was rebuilding Torah, with his five students, he was also laying the foundation that had never been securely in place; the great principle of, Love your neighbor as yourself.
Now, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai:
- Fiery intolerance: After twelve years in the cave, Rabbi Shimon emerged. You would think that upon seeing a person for the first time in over a decade, that like a grandfather seeing his grandchildren after months in lockdown, that he would jump for joy. Well, that’s not exactly what happened. The first people Rabbi Shimon saw were average, regular folks who were working their fields. Upon seeing them, Rabbi Shimon exclaimed, “How is it possible that people ignore spiritual pursuits and occupy themselves with the mundanity of this world!?” According to the Talmud, his fiery gaze fried those people right where they were. I doubt that those were actual kabbalistic flames that shot out of his eyes, rather, the Talmud is telling us how damning and brutally judgmental his thoughts were. The Talmud goes on to say that a Heavenly voice proclaimed, “Okay Rabbi Shimon. You’re in time-out. Back into that cave and don’t come out for another year.”
- The simple old man: A year later, when his time-out was lifted, Rabbi Shimon and his son saw an old man holding two bundles of myrtle branches and hurrying home for Shabbat. “What are those for?” They asked. The old man replied. “They are in honor of Shabbat.” “But wouldn’t just one be enough?” “No. One is to remember the Shabbat, and the other is to guard the Shabbat.” Rabbi Shimon was struck by how precious Shabbat was to this man.
From this old man, the great sage and kabbalist gained a new insight into giving honor to the Shabbat. From his encounter with this old man, the lesson was brought home to Rabbi Shimon that there is something to be learned from every Jew, and, that just like every letter in a Torah is brimming with remarkable, unseen depth, wisdom, and beauty, the same is true for each and every Jew. Never again would Rabbi Shimon underestimate the precious light in every Jew, whether he or she be a scholar, a farmer, shopkeeper, accountant, florist, nurse, soldier, or a simple old man.
- As we will see in a moment, the most extraordinary day of Rabbi Shimon’s life, was his last, and that day, was Lag B’omer.
Rabbi Akiva’s students, the ones who fell short in their love and respect for one another, died in a plague that lasted throughout the first thirty-two days of the Omer. The thirty-third day of the Omer, Lag B’omer, is when we celebrate the life of Rabbi Akiva’s great student, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who came to embody love and appreciation for every Jew.
The Orchard: Part VI. Corona B’omer
At Last, Lag B’omer
Today in Israel, in the small mountain top town of Meron, hundreds of thousands of Jews gather every year to celebrate Lag B’omer, the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Without a doubt, the last time so many Jews gathered together in one place to celebrate a holiday was over two thousand years ago in the days when the Temple stood in Jerusalem. Back then, there was an obligation for everyone to go to Jerusalem three times a year; Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. And huge numbers did.
But Lag B’omer? Lag B’omer is a unique phenomenon on the Jewish calendar. It is a custom that for centuries was only observed by relatively small numbers of Jews that has blossomed into a day that brings hundreds of thousands of Jews of every kind together for an absolutely unique celebration in the quaint little town where Shimon Bar Yochai is buried. Not to mention countless others who celebrate the day in communities across Israel and throughout the Jewish world? And so we return to the question:
What’s the deal? What is all the fuss about Lag B’omer?
Lag B’omer Is a Very Big Deal
“And who is like Your nation of Israel, one people in the land.” Samuel II, 7:23
“The Jewish people is only called ‘one’—complete—in the land of Israel.” Zohar III, 93:2
Lag B’omer is a big deal because it’s about Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is a big deal because he’s about Kabbalah and the Zohar.
Kabbalah is a big deal because it’s about revealing and redeeming the p’nimiut of life.
The Zohar is a big deal because it’s linked to the redemption of the Jewish nation.
Redemption is a big deal because it’s the beginning of a new era;
An era in which Am Yisrael is again becoming one nation, in the land,
An era of universal peace, harmony, and awareness of God.
An era when chitzoniut no longer inhibits, but rather supports p’nimiut.
Redemption is also a big deal because, well, because it has begun.
Now, before we finally, and I promise finally, jump into Lag B’omer, we will need to take a look at the idea of redemption. At this juncture in our history—today—the time we are a living part of, we need to consider the possibility that …
With the return to Israel, we are all living in the midst of a new reality.
Not just the Corona reality, but something even bigger, much bigger.
A reality called Geula.
To the possibility that …
Geula is an unfolding transformation in the condition of the Jewish people, and ultimately the world, that carries with it far-reaching implications.
To the possibility that …
The geula we’ve long been waiting and praying for is not at all what we expected, that we are actually in the thick midst, the foggy mist, of redemption; that our long sojourn in exile may be nearing completion, and that we are all being challenged to rethink just about everything.
The Jewish people were once a great, sovereign nation in the land of Israel. Then, we were conquered and exiled by both the Babylonians and the Romans. Exile, however, is temporary. True, a torture-filled two thousand year long exile may seem awfully permanent, but it’s not. There will be a redemption; a time when the Jewish people will return to Israel, when Jerusalem will be rebuilt, when God’s Presence will again be grandly manifest, when the lion will lay down with the lamb, when nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither will they learn war any more.
Redemption I: Dry Bones
In the book of Ezekiel, there is a core prophecy that describes the process of the redemption of the Jewish people. There, Ezekiel is standing in Jerusalem where he sees a valley filled with dry bones. He is told that those lifeless bones represent the nation of Israel in exile. Then, in a scene that would make George Lucas and Peter Jackson proud, Ezekiel is witness to the bones returning to life. Bone finds its’ way to matching bone, skeletons reassemble, flesh and skin regenerate, until finally, the entire nation is back on its’ feet.
To insure that he understood what he was seeing, God said to Ezekiel:
“These bones are the House of Israel, and they are saying, ‘Our bones are dried out, and all hope is lost.’ [And then God told Ezekiel to say] “My nation, I am opening up your graves and bringing you out of them, and I will bring you to the soil of Israel … My people, you will fully understand that I am God, when I raise you from your graves … and put my spirit in you, so you will live …” (Ezekiel 11-14)
This prophecy is read in synagogue every year during Passover. The historical message is clear: Just like the bitter exile in Egypt seemed absolutely hopeless, and nonetheless it lead to redemption and the birth of the Jewish nation, so too the long exile of the future. Though it would seem as if there was no hope of ever escaping the horrors of being scattered to every corner of the earth, nonetheless a time would come when the lifeless bones of Israel would be restored to the land of Israel. The nation would be reborn.
Redemption II: Death, Burial and the Vilna Gaon
The Vilna Gaon explained Ezekiel’s vision this way—
“For a person, death is when the soul leaves the body. For the nation, the destruction of the Temple is the departure of the soul from the “body” of Israel. Following death is burial. For the nation, being driven out of the land parallels the burial of the body.
For the Jewish people, exile is the grave. In the grave, the body is helpless to defend itself against the elements that devour it. For the nation, these forces are the nations of the world that ravage us wherever we go.
With time, just like the body begins to decay and decompose, the same is true for the nation. Where once there was a whole, deeply connected nation, in exile the Jewish people devolve into myriad scattered communities, pockets of Jewish presence in far off countries and cultures, scattered families and individuals. Eventually the body becomes nothing but scattered bones.
The last remaining bones are the scattered Torah sages that still exist even in exile. As time goes on, even these bones begin to decay. The last vestiges of a body all but disappear; what remains is fragments of what once was, and a faint hope that one day the nation will rise from the dust and again be infused with a spirit of renewal.”
Redemption III: Like Dreamers
The following is adapted from Rabbi Sasson’s teachings about the prophecy of Ezekiel, the teachings of the Zohar and the Vilna Gaon, and what is taking place in Israel today—“right in front of our eyes.”
- When speaking about God’s eventual return of the Jewish people to Jerusalem, it says in the Book of Psalms, “We will be like dreamers.” Sometimes, the enormity of a moment, of an event, is so startling that it can barely be grasped. So much so, that we experience a type of internal disorientation: Is this real or is this a dream?
- You need to grab hold of yourself, don’t be blinded by the brilliant light that is shining from the deepest essence of our era. Right in front of our eyes.
There was a time when the people of Israel naturally understood that the meaning of its existence was its oneness; like a body’s meaning is found only in its collective integration, and not within the localized identity of this or that limb or organ.
- When we lived in Israel, the nation of Israel knew that our mission was collective, and universal. We knew that mankind was terribly broken, and that as a people—and only as a people—could we be the source of repair, of light.
- In exile, however, that awareness inevitably became lost. All that was left of us was disassociated limbs, spiritually comatose, in the grave of exile.
- In exile, the center of Jewish awareness and life shifted from the self that is intrinsic to a nation, to the self that is a lonely individual; a finger whose whole meaning is to be found in being a finger, not in being part of a much bigger reality called a hand, and certainly not as a vital part of a body.
- This awful blinding of Jewish eyes is the core bitterness of exile, and only with the return to the land can it begin to be healed.
- God has remembered his people.
- In a stunning, miraculous fashion, after a harsh, bitter exile, He has restored us to our land. He snatched us from the hand of death, from thick darkness, and restored us to life and light; in the land of Israel, that gives her fruits in abundance to her children who have come home.
- Ezekiel taught us that redemption would unfold in progressive stages.
Stage One is the ingathering of scattered Jewish exiles, when the scattered bones would find their way back to one another and the complete body would begin to take shape again. This is what we have seen, as we have been gathered to our land and once again live together in Jewish cities, towns and villages. This is what we have seen in the building from scratch of all the infrastructure required for the country and society to function and flourish.
- Stage Two is the restoration of the spirit to the body. Now that we have returned home, there is a reemergence of the collective soul that flows through every Jew—every limb—and that unites us as one, in the deepest way possible.
“One of the most critically important concepts you need to understand is that whenever you find the term Knesset Yisrael used by our sages, it is synonymous with Shechina … [Knesset Yisrael] is the entirety of the Jewish people … and this unique unity is the defining element distinguishing the Jewish Nation from all other nations.” (Shaarei Orah, Rabbi Yosef Gikatilla, 13th century Spanish kabbalist)
- It is during this stage that we are elevated to a new, higher consciousness of our core identity—that of Am Yisroel, the unified collective of the nation of Israel. One people, one body, one heart, and one transcendent soul. This is Shechina.
- Today, Israel has a vibrant economy, a dynamic political system, a sophisticated transportation system, excellent medical care, and every home has electricity, gas, water and most have wi-fi. Like a maturing, growing adolescent body, Israel still has “filling-in” to do; there will be more and more Jews that will come, there will be more innovation, but by-and-large, what we have today in Israel is a well-developed modern country.
- The first stage of redemption has already taken place.
- Today we are in a transitional stage from stage one to stage two. However, while it’s true that we have returned home, in many ways, despite the fact that we are neighbors, we are still strangers. Far too often what separates us is more stark than what connects us; our passion for what divides us runs deeper than our devotion to what binds us, and our refusal to hear, feel and consider what one another has to say is more stubborn than our commitment to love one another—despite our differences.
- Exile all but destroyed the unique family bond that is both the heart and soul of the inter-relationship of the Jewish people, as well as the essence of our collective relationship to God.
- The time is now at hand, for the deepest redemption, for the complete restoration of an intrinsic awareness that we are one family, with one heart, and one soul.
- The death-like state of exile can also be understood as a deep, deep sleep. The kind of sleep that even after you have begun to wake-up, you still feel the fog of slumber clinging to your mind’s eye.
- Today we are literally waking up from a sleep that became deeper and deeper with each passing century; each persecution, each upheaval, each dream delayed. Now, as our tired eyes are opening to a grander reality, we are beginning to see again in a way that hasn’t existed, seemingly, forever. Our heart is beginning to beat and pulse again; like a family, a nation, that shares one home, one mission, one destiny—one soul.
- The restoration that is the second stage of our redemption, is all about the reunion of the family of Israel.
- This final reunion won’t come easily. We have been estranged for so long. We are more comfortable as strangers than as neighbors. We are more at ease in the narrow confines of those who are just like us. We feel safer and more secure with people who look like us, think like us, sing like us, vote like us, dress like us, and pray like us.
- Yet, we sense—we know!
Those days are receding. A new reality has dawned.
The only question that remains for each of us is: Will I be part of strengthening the family, or will I be that stubborn, self-centered cousin who never fails to wreak havoc at every family gathering?
- The time has come. The time is now. Right in front of our eyes.
Redemption IV: Kabbalah, Family, and Lag B’omer
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yocahi.
Do you the echoes? The melody?
A seed is buried in the dark, seemingly inhospitable dirt. It appears to be lifeless, and can lay dormant for years. One day, its outer coat begins to decay, as if it is at death’s door. In fact, germination has begun, and soon a tiny seedling emerges. Still deep in the ground, life slowly begins to push its way to the surface, until a diminutive sprout emerges into the light of day. A young plant that could easily go unnoticed, it continues to grow and grow and grow, until.
The emergent phenomenon of what Lag B’omer has become is the natural manifestation of something deeper. Something that had been hidden beneath the surface of history for a long, long time. In all of Jewish history there is only one person who became the embodiment of a holiday. Not Abraham, not Moses, but only Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Only Lag B’omer. Only now.
As you are beginning to see, the secret keys to understanding Lag B’omer are redemption, the Zohar, and family.
Just like the Torah has a layer that is hidden and a layer that is revealed, the same is true with redemption. Though we have been mired in exile for two millennia, beneath the surface of history, the redemptive process—like a germinating seed deep in the ground—has been slowly working its way to the surface. About a hundred years ago, the topsoil of history was breached when we began, in large numbers, to return and rebuild our ancient homeland.
“Once, Rabbi Chiya Rabba, and Rabbi Shimon Bar Chalafta were walking together at the break of dawn. Rabbi Chiya Rabba said, ‘this is what the redemption of Israel will be like. At first it will proceed a little bit at a time, but the longer it progresses, the brighter it will get.’” (Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Brachot 1:1)
Central to that hidden, beneath-the-surface momentum of redemption is the Zohar. Kabbalistic wisdom, both as it is studied, and as it is applied in the practice of Judaism, in prayer, and in every aspect of Jewish life, is like the nourishing sunlight that penetrates the earth and coaxes the seed to sprout, and become a tender shoot inching its way to the surface. Remember, Torah is “light,” and the light of the Zohar is like the invisible portion of the light spectrum that, though unseen by the human eye, warms and nourishes nonetheless.
Rabbi Moshe Cordavero (1522-70. Tsfat, Israel), one of the all-time greats in the history of kabbalistic scholarship, teaches that the land of Israel is the perfect soil ideally suited to the healthy growth of the Jewish people. Everywhere else, our growth is stunted, only in Israel can we flourish. He also says that, “the primary light of Shabbat shines only in Israel.” The same is true for the light of the Torah; there is a unique light that only shines in Israel. This light is known as the “Torah of the Land.”
“If you want to see God’s Presence in this world, study Torah in the land of Israel.” (Midrash, Psalm 105)
“The Torah of the land of Israel is a very lofty light …in the land of Israel the inner essence of all dimensions is revealed; the inner essence of the Jewish people, the Torah, of all the lights … and the masters of kabbalah have taught us that the inner essence of the heart of every Jew will be kindled through the teachings of the secrets of the Torah … for the hidden layer of the Torah is addressed primarily to the nation as a whole, and to each Jew in his or her context as part of the larger nation, not as an individual in and of himself … and this is why redemption is linked to the Zohar, that which reveals the inner essence of everything. And this explains why today, like never before, there is an intense interest in the teachings of kabbalah.” (Talelei Chayim: Introduction to Exodus, and Hikitzu V’rannu.)
And then we have family. The role of kabbalah, and the return to the land, are essential for redemption, but not sufficient. For the Jewish people to not only return and rebuild Israel, but to enable the fullness of redemption to blossom in all its beauty, a restoration of the inherent bonds of family—of Jewish unity—is an absolute requirement. We need to be able to see beneath the façade of what divides us, to understand that all of our differences are little more than skin deep, and appreciate that within each of us is a bit of the collective soul that binds us all in the deepest, most profound way imaginable.
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was all of this.
As we know, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was the quintessential disciple of Rabbi Akiva, the man who saw redemption where others saw darkness; the man who could bring comfort to those standing on the fresh rubble of the Jewish nation. As the student par excellence, Rabbi Shimon revealed that which no other could fathom, the Zohar, p’nimiut ha’Torah at its most profound level. He too knew that redemption was just around the bend, though it might take an awfully long time to turn that bend. And, thanks to the old man passionately clutching those bunches of myrtle, Rabbi Shimon embodies that which must be the hallmark of Jewish peoplehood as redemption unfolds: the belief in the inherent, indispensible beauty of every member of the Jewish family, no matter what. No matter what.
So That Explains It
Lag B’omer, a humble little holiday that played only a minor role in Jewish life for so long, has now emerged as a superstar in its own right. Like those dry bones themselves, spiritual seeds decomposing in the ground—seemingly dead—though actually just dormant, waiting to find their way back to one another, and back to the verdant, fruitful surface of the land.
Lag B’omer mirrors the hidden light of redemption.
“When the land of Israel gives its fruits in abundance, then the end of history is approaching, and there is no greater revelation of the end of time than this.” (Rashi, Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a)
Today, it feels as if the land of Israel is welcoming us home. Like the land that itself lay barren for so many centuries, and only recently began to once again come back to life—to produce an abundance of fruit—so too the nation. Back home in our life-giving land, we begin to take root once again, to grow and blossom. And in Israel today, p’nimiut ha’Torah is becoming more and more widely studied in the scholarly world of yeshivot, as well as within the spiritually thirsty community at large. Ultimately, in the not too distant future, we will reengage as one spectacular family tree, physically strong and spiritually vibrant, ready to bask in the new rays of light that will shine from Jerusalem, from the p’nimiut of Rabbi Shimon’s Torah, and through us, to the world and all mankind.
Lag B’omer, like the light of kabbalah, the dry bones of redemption, and the land itself, only fully comes to life with the return of the people. Today, hundreds of thousands flock to Meron; to a small, sleepy town nestled in the mountains, because there is a deep, deep stirring within the Jewish people. A collective inner awareness that the time for the revelation of the God’s hidden light; the light of each individual, the light of the nation, the light of the Torah, and the light of redemption, has arrived.
And nothing says revealed light, ohr p’nimi, and redemption, like Lag B’omer.
Corona B’omer: The Sound of Silence
This year however, no one will be flocking anywhere.
Perhaps that’s because we don’t need to.
Perhaps we don’t need the spectacle and frenetic energy of tens of thousands singing all around us. Perhaps we don’t need the sight of enormous bonfires with their dancing flames licking and illuminating the night sky.
Perhaps all we need is to listen to the guidance that Eliyahu Ha’navi surely taught to Rabbi Shimon and his son when they were alone in their cave.
“And he [Eliyahu] came into the cave … And God was passing, and there was a great and powerful wind …but God was not in the wind; and after the wind, an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, fire, but God was not in the fire. After the fire, a faint, silent voice. And when Eliyahu heard, he then wrapped his head in his cloak, and he came out and stood at the entrance to the cave, and a voice came to him and said, ‘What are you doing here Eliyahu?’” (Kings I, 19: 9-13)
In Netzach Yisroel (80:28) the Maharal says that in life, the voice of Eliyahu comes to each of us. R. Eliyahu Dessler (Michtav m’Eliyahu 1:209) says that this is particularly true as the end of history approaches.
In Kol Ha’nevuah, Rabbi David Kohen, the holy Nazir of Yerusholayim, teaches that the particular avoda, the particular spiritual practice of this era of unfolding geula, is shmiya, listening. At Sinai, we “heard” God, we didn’t see Him. The quintessential Jewish prayer is the Shema; a call to the nation, and to every Jew, to listen. And every Jew, begins every year, listening to the voice of the shofar.
I wonder, is the voice that will herald the culmination of geula the voice of Eliyahu, or, just like Eliyahu heard that sound-of-silence-voice of God within himself, maybe we too are able to hear the silent voice of God speaking within us?
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai:
P’nimiut: Like his teacher, Rabbi Akiva, he was able to see beneath and beyond the rubble of the present, and to hear the murmuring of a different sort of future. And us?
Sōd. Secrets of Torah:
P’nimiut: Rabbi Shimon revealed its depths, and the slow revelation of those depths are tied to the inner, p’nimiut of Torah that is beckoning us all.
Love and respect:
P’nimiut: Seeing beneath all that seems to divide us, and embracing the inner essence that binds us.
P’nimiut: Peeling away our fixations on what appears to be terribly wrong, and taking to heart the remarkable beauty of all that is so very right.
Are we listening? Do we hear the quiet echoes? The silent, variegated melodies?
Perhaps just like Eliyahu needed to take refuge in a cave before he could hear that inner voice; before he could hear something even louder and deeper than the sound of a storming wind, a quaking earth, or the crackling bonfires of Meron, we too need to take quiet refuge.
Perhaps this Lag B’omer, we too need to be secluded so that we can hear that faint voice: That silent voice that is speaking more clearly than ever.
“… and uniquely exalted is this holy day … which is, in essence, the day of the giving of the hidden Torah. Just like the revealed Torah was given through Moshe Rabbeinu, so too through Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was revealed the dimension of Torah which is the holy of holy’s, and every year, this day is infused with the great light of p’nimiut ha’Torah; the light from which we live. And we know, just like the Torah of the Ari ha’kadosh is an elucidation of the Torah of Rabbi Shimon, so too the light of the Baal Shem Tov and his students … all of which are the fruits of that which was planted by Rebbe Shimon.” (Netivot Shalom 2: 327)
(Perhaps each of us is now a bar Yochai, a son of Rebbe Shimon)
You sat in a good place,
On the day you ran, the day you fled;
You stood in a rocky cave,
There you acquired your beauty and glory.”