A bright light of confusion surrounds the day we call Lag B’omer. Ask one Jew what it is and he might even give you two opinions. According to Pri Megadim (1), something is special about the day, but we are not sure exactly what it is. If he’s not sure, them I’m not either. Two basic schools of thought (there are more) posit something along these lines of
- a. The students of Rabbi Akiva stopped dying on this day
- b. Something relating to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai
- i. He died on this day
- ii. He revealed the secrets of Kabbalah on this day
Each approach has its problems – thoroughly explicated by the poskim. Consider: If Rabbi Akiva’s students stopped dying on this day because there was no one left, it does not seem like much of a reason to celebrate. If they died throughout the omer period, but there was a special hiatus on Lag B’omer, then it merely begs the question, why this day – which brings us to our second reason. A celebration of anyone’s yahrtzeit (anniversary of the person’s death), particularly that of a tzaddik like Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (2), is an unconventional means of commemoration. Indeed, Rama recommends that one should fast on yahrtzeit. Ironically, Lag B’omer is also the day of Ramo’s yahrtzeit. Thus Chatam Sofer and others discourage a celebration. At this point, any Chassidic reader will scoff at this decidedly cold and cursory analysis – can ½ million Jews flocking to Meron for music, merriment, fire making and chalaka be without basis. (I would probably go myself)
Amidst the confusion, here’s a thought to ponder. According to the Talmudic version (Yevamos 62b) 12,000 pairs of students died during the omer period because shelo nahagu kavod zeh bazeh (lit. they did not act with respect towards each other). Without question, we are analyzing great men of spirit possessing a subtle flaw. On their level though, the Talmud presents a short but stark condemnation – for it links their deaths, or perhaps more precisely, their inability to transmit the Torah to the next generation, to that very character weakness.
A classic omer question surrounding the whole saga is how could it be … that the students of Rabbi Akiva, great purveyor of the message v’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha – zeh klal gadol batorah; Love your neighbor as yourself – this is the great rule of the Torah” be deficient precisely in the area that their Rebbe stressed; by extension we must ask the obvious and painful question: does this not reflect negatively upon the master himself?
Unsurprisingly, answers abound. A famous and cute approach teaches that Rabbi Akiva began peddling the message as a result of this dark period. For so many reasons, it is difficult to hear this answer.
Rav Tzadok and the Lubavitcher Rebbe distinguish between respect and love. One may love someone without respecting him – creating a noxious admixture that can smother the object of love. Consider the parent
a. .. who cherishes music and desperately wants his child to feel the same pleasure, forcing him to play piano. (That the child is tone deaf is a technical detail.)
b. .. who wants the child to be successful and forces his/her attention deficit disorder child to sit through the most rigorous academic courses shuttling him from tutor to test
Love without respect is hugging the child without giving him room to breathe. It is a smothering and suffocating existence. Even as Rabbi Akiva’s students had deep love for the other, they demanded for their chavrusa, their colleague/study partners absolute loyalty. Their love came without a recognition and respect that each talmid had his own unique approach and connection with Hashem. Thus, they were unfit to be true transmitters of Torah.
Now consider Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai who walks out of the cave. After 12 years of hiding (with his son, Rav Elazar) from the Romans for the sin of teaching Torah, Eliyahu teaches him that the coast is clear (the emperor is dead). He sees a simple farmer doing his thing. Rabbi Shimon is incensed; for Rabbi Shimon [cf. Brachos 35b] every moment of this-worldly focus is vacuous. His pithy comment of manichin chayei olam v’oskim b’chayei sha’a (they forsake life eternal and engage in life temporal) is an expression of utter disdain. He looks in the farmer’s direction and in Talmudic lexicon burns him with his eyes. The scene repeats itself a few times. Finally, a heavenly voice excoriates Rabbi Shimon: Have you emerged from the cave to destroy My world?
He goes back into the cave and learns for another year. It is hard to imagine this will solve the problem – but it does. When he returns, wherever the son (Rav Elazar) burnt, the father Rabbi Shimon heals. Then a turning point:
On the eve of the Sabbath before sunset they saw an old man holding two bundles of myrtle and running at twilight. ‘What are these for?’ they asked him. ‘They are in honor of the Sabbath,’ he replied.’But one should suffice you’?- One is for Zachor-Remember and the other for Shamor-Observe. Said he to his son, ‘See how precious are the commandments to Israel.’ Thereafter their minds were at peace.
Unquestionably, Rabbi Shimon intensely loves all Jews. When he emerges from the cave for the 1st time, he can see nothing but his own approach. His light was intense – but it burnt others. When he returned from the cave, he learned to master the art of loving and respecting. Rabbi Shimon who was from the 2nd group of Rabbi Akiva’s talmidim, developed the ability to find beauty in others’ distinct, more down to earth, and admittedly simpler approach to serving God.
By so doing, he was able to achieve a corrective for all that we mourn in the Omer. It was that light, a soft and bright one, which he was now able to share with the world – one that we could bask in without being burnt. With Rabbi Shimon’s emergence the terribly sad saga of the omer is corrected. He, along with the rest of Rabbi Akiva’s students become the essential transmitters of a Torah Sheba’al Peh.
As we prepare for Shavuos, we may have a lesson or two to learn.
Good Shabbos, Asher Brander
1. Shulchan Aruch – Mishbetzos Zahav 493:1
2. The concept of playing with bow and arrow might be connected to this as well for the Talmud teaches that in the days of Rabbi shimon B. Yochai no (rain)bow appeared for his greatness was enough to save the world from destruction. However the day he died, a rainbow appeared.
Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.