Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn,Rav and Dean at Yeshivat Yavneh.
We celebrate because they stopped dying. That notion never sat well with me. The Talmud in Yevamos (62b) teaches us that 12,000 pairs of students of Rabbi Akiva perished during the timeframe of the Omer. On the 33rd of the Omer ‘pasku lamos’, they stopped dying. The fact that Rabbi Akiva’s students “stopped” dying does not seem like much to celebrate. On the contrary, the commencement of a period of mourning would be more appropriate at this moment.
The Halacha even reflects a sense of joy on this day as the Tur (493) rules that “some cut their hair from Lag B’omer and onward because we say that they ‘stopped dying’. “ What is the meaning of this joy? Rav Chezkia de Silva in his Pri Chadash (493:2) raises our problem. I want to share his solution but not in his words, rather in the words of the great Jerusalem scholar known as the Chida (Tov Ayin, 18:87) who said, “And on the 33rd day of the Omer, (Rabbi Akiva) began to teach Rav Shimon Bar Yochai, Rebbe Meir, Reb Yossi, etc and it became clear to them that Torah was returning, therefore we rejoice.”
Yes! Lag B’omer has a very sad component to it, almost overwhelming, but at the same time it represents the hope of continuity. As an analogy, imagine a person who is ill and for 8 months is getting sicker and sicker until ultimately the doctor walks in and says, “We finally found a pill, this one is going to save you!” You can never bring back those eight lost months but there is a profound joy when we discover the remedy.
Rabbi Akiva thought Torah may actually come to an end. He considered that the mesorah (tradition) may end with him and his lost students. Then, suddenly, in the middle of the darkest night of the year, the embers started to flicker and a flame was born anew.
The Arizal (Shaar HaKavanos, Sefiras Ha’omer 12) seems to echo this sentiment when he writes that after the time of smallness (SE – a period of a perceived dimming of cosmic light,) we welcome in a time of greatness. The five lights that bring in this period of greatness are the five students of Rabbi Akiva. This perspective on why we celebrate Lag B’omer also explains the custom that some have to light a candle on Lag B’omer.
According to the Bnei Yissoschar (Iyaar, 3:3) it reflects the spark of Torah that began to flicker again on Lag B’omer. Lag B’omer reminds us in every generation it may seem we enter into a period where Torah does not have the same stature in the world that it once did, yet, it will rise again. In the period of Ezra, the nation almost completely forgot Torah until Ezra began a revolution. This ebb and flow is a constant pattern throughout our people’s history.
Let’s take this one level deeper. Lag B’omer is also, according to our tradition, the day on which Rav Shimon Bar Yochai passed away. This means that of the five surviving students of Rabbi Akiva, Lag B’omer is most intimately associated with his one student, Rav Shimon Bar Yochai. It’s his day. This gives us an additional window into understanding the happiness of Lag B’omer. Not only was it evident to Rabbi Akiva on this day that Torah is going to survive, it was evident to Rabbi Akiva that Torah was going to thrive and that Rav Shimon Bar Yochai would reveal the deeper teachings of Torah. This was no ordinary student. Rav Shimon Bar Yochai brought the world the Zohar. The Zohar brought us a new way of seeing how Torah can change our lives. In the irony of ironies, if the students of Rabbi Akiva are never gone then Rav Shimon Bar Yochai never has the chance for an intimate teacher-student relationship with Rabbi Akiva. If that relationship is never fostered we may never have access to the hidden treasures embedded in the Torah.
To give an example of how the profundity of the Zohar impacted our worldview, the Zohar teaches us that G-d, “looked into the Torah and created our world.” This means that the whole world is encoded with the DNA of the Torah. The whole world is suffused with the truth of G d’s greater wisdom. Maimonides writes, “What’s the way to come to love G d and fear G d? When a person thinks about his actions and G d’s creations and sees the great wisdom, with no end, he begins to appreciate G d.”
It is our job to look at this world, at ourselves, at new life and at what G d has done. And then we appreciate. That’s how you find what it is you need to learn about this world. The beginning of the Zohar says that G d opened up a Torah scroll and from that He created the world. What does that mean? This whole word is encrypted with the words of Torah. When the Baal Hatanya, Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, was on his deathbed, his students asked him what he was seeing now that he was in the process of transferring into the next world. As he was lying down looking up, he responded that where once he saw a beam on his ceiling, he now saw the Hebrew letters kuf, vav, resh, heh – spelling the word kora, translating to “beam.” He was seeing what is really the metaphysical foundation of this entire world. The Hebrew letters stand as the basis, because G d looked into the Torah and created the world.
Rav Shimon Bar Yochai taught us to see so much differently. There is a well-known passage in Rav. Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man It describes how Rav Soloveitchik and his father were watching the sun set at the end of Yom Kippur while speaking outdoors (p. 38): “I remember how once, on the Day of Atonement, I went outside into the synagogue courtyard with my father [Rav Moses Soloveitchik], just before the Ne’ilah service. It had been a fresh, clear day, one of the fine, almost delicate days of summer’s end, filled with sunshine and light. Evening was fast approaching, and an exquisite autumn sun was sinking in the west, beyond the trees of the cemetery, into a sea of purple and gold. Rav Moses, a halakhic man par excellence, turned to me and said, “This sunset differs from ordinary sunsets, for with it forgiveness is bestowed upon us and our sins.” The Day of Atonement and the forgiveness of sins merged and blended here with the splendor and beauty of the world and with the hidden lawfulness of the order of creation and the whole was transformed into one living, holy, cosmic phenomenon.
With this understanding, the analogy I mentioned above, changes. The old idea was to imagine a person who has been ill for 8 months, is getting sicker and sicker until ultimately the doctor walks in and says they finally found a pill and that this one is going to save the patient. Now here’s the new analogy.
Imagine a person who is ill who for 8 months is getting sicker and sicker until ultimately the doctor walks in and says we finally found a pill, this one is going to save you. “And the amazing thing is,” adds the doctor, “Not only is it going to save you, it’s going to make you ten times stronger than before.”
That, my friends, is the joy of Lag B’omer.