Lag BaOmer (the 33rd day of the Omer count) celebrates the end of the plague amongst Rabbi Akiva's students, and the ascent on high of the soul of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (see "Today in Jewish History"). The mourning practices of the Omer period are suspended, which is why many three-year-old boys receive their first haircut on this day. Many visit the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in Meron in northern Israel. It is customary to go on outings and to light bonfires; children play with bow-and-arrows to recall that "during the lifetime of Rabbi Shimon the rainbow (--a sign of the world's unworthiness, as per Genesis 9:14) was not seen."
The Lubavitcher Rebbe initiated the organization of parades of Jewish unity and pride on Lag BaOmer and on a number of occasions (in 1953, 1956, 1957, 1960, 1966, 1967, 1970, 1976, 1980, 1983, 1984, 1987 and 1990) he addressed the parade held near his headquarters in Brooklyn in which thousands of Jewish children and their teachers participated.
The Morrow of the Shabbat
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
In the Torah reading of Emor, the commandment of counting the omer is stated: "And you shall count unto you from the morrow of the day of rest ('Shabbat'), from the day that you brought the sheaf ('omer') of the waving; there shall be seven complete weeks" (Leviticus 23:15).
The Talmud (Menachot 65a) tells us that the sect of the Boethusians interpreted the word Shabbat to mean the seventh day of the week, rather than the "day of rest" of Passover. As a consequence they held that the counting of the omer always begins on a Sunday. There was considerable debate, during which the Rabbis brought many scriptural proofs to establish that the Boethusian interpretation was false. But a persistent question remains: Why did the Torah leave room for this error, instead of stating explicitly, "on the day after Passover"?
2. Three Months
In Exodus 3:10, G-d tells Moses: "When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve G-d upon this mountain." In other words, the purpose of the Exodus from Egypt lay in the Giving of the Torah. Between these two events, the Exodus and the Revelation on Sinai, came the seven weeks of the omer. These seven weeks were the necessary transition between the start and the completion of the redemption.
Three months were involved in this process: Nissan, in which the Exodus took place; Iyar, which is wholly taken up with the counting of the Omer; and Sivan, in which the Torah was given.
Only these three are explicitly mentioned in the context of the redemption. Of Nissan it is written: "The month of Spring, . . . in it you came out of Egypt" (Exodus 23:15). Of Iyar we find, "The second month . . . after they had come out of the land of Egypt" (Number 1:1). And of Sivan, "In the third month after the Children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt" (Exodus 19:1). All three are mentioned because each was an integral part of the redemption.
3. Three Kinds of Food
Of these three stages, Passover is linked to the eating of Matzah. The omer was a measure of barley. And Shavuot had a special offering of two loaves of fine flour baked with leaven.
This presents a number of difficulties.
Only two meal offerings did not consist of wheat: The omer, and the offering of a wife suspected of infidelity. Both of these were of barley. In the latter case the Talmud (Sotah 14a) gives a reason: Her offering was to be of animal food as a humiliation for her immorality ("She did the deed of an animal, therefore she brings animal feed as an offering"). But why was the omer of animal food?
On Passover we are forbidden to eat leaven, because leaven symbolizes man's inclination to pride and self-esteem. As leaven causes dough to rise, so pride inflates a man to arrogance. But why, in that case, are we allowed to eat leaven the rest of the year, and indeed obliged (in the Temple) to do so on Shavuot?
4. "Draw Me; We Will Run After You"
In the Song of Songs (1:4), there is a verse, "Draw me, we will run after you; the king has brought me into his chambers." The Kabbalists see these three phrases as references to the three stages of the departure from Egypt. "Draw me" is the Exodus. "We will run after you" is the counting of the omer. "The king has brought me into his chambers" is the giving of the Torah.
"Draw me" is passive -- it refers to the Israelites being taken out by G-d. Also it is singular. Whereas "We will run after you" is both active and plural.
The Zohar explains that by the end of their enslavement, the Israelites were assimilated into the heathen ways of their captors. They were not deserving of redemption. They had to be seized and drawn out of their captivity by the initiative of G-d. Since they were not inwardly prepared for it, this unexpected revelation did not alter them inwardly. They were taken hold of by G-d rather than by the promptings of their heart. And although their "G-dly soul" responded, their "animal soul" was unchanged. One part of their being received the revelation, but the other, the capacity for evil, remained. Indeed, says Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, this is why the Israelites are described as having fled from Egypt (Exodus 14:5). What they were running from was the evil within themselves.
So we can understand the phrase "Draw me." Firstly, when we take possession of an object by seizing hold of it nothing is changed in the subject itself; it merely changes hands: In this case, Israel went from being in the hand of Pharaoh to being in the hand of G-d. Israel in itself was unchanged.
Secondly, it was passive. The drawing out of Egypt was achieved by the hand of Heaven, not by any spontaneous act on the part of the Israelites.
Thirdly, it was singular. The revelation of this sudden intervention of G-d affected only one side of their being. Their spirit responded; their physical passions did not.
5. Intellect and Passion
For all this, the purpose of a revelation is that the spirit should change the physical nature of man as well. As Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi puts it, if man were meant to be pure spirit, he would not have needed a body. The point of a religious life within the world is to bring every side of human nature into G-d's work. In the words of the Talmud: "'And you shall love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart' -- this means, with both your inclinations."
This interplay not only elevates the physical side of man, but also his spiritual life, by adding to it the drive and energy of physical passion. Man as an intellectual being is dispassionate: his emotions and desires are mitigated by the rational control he exercises over them. But animal energy, be it literally in an animal or in the instinctual drives of man, is unchecked, powerful. "There is much increase by the strength of an ox" (Proverbs 14:4).When the animal in man is no longer at war with his spirit, but is sublimated to it, all its passionate intensity is transferred to the life of holiness.
This is why the omer was of barley, animal food. This was the labor of that period: to transform the "animal soul" of the Israelites which had remained unaffected by the initial revelation in Egypt.
How is this done? By meditation. Meditation on the nature of G-d awakens love and fear. At first, when one knows that rebellion, pride and animal obstinacy still hold power within oneself, one must "flee." This is the time of suppression. But once one has left the "Egypt" of temptation, there comes a time of meditation and sublimation, when the two sides of man no longer battle for possession. The spirit rules, and physical nature transfers its energy.
Thus Solomon wrote, "We will run after you." We will run, because our service is quickened by this new source of energy. We will run, because it is we, not G-d, who take the initiative. And "we," in the plural, because both sides of our nature are caught up in this effort of reaching out towards G-d, and each gives impetus to the other.
6. The Final Stage
There is still a further stage. At the Exodus, there was the Divine call. During the counting of the omer, there was man's response. But at the Giving of the Torah, there was the final abnegation of man in the face of G-d.
While for forty-nine days the Israelite was transforming himself, he was still a self, still using his powers and relying on himself. But at Sinai, in the face of G-d, "With every single word that went forth from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, the souls of Israel departed" (Talmud, Shabbat 88b). They were empty: The only reality was G-d.
Thus it is that on Passover we may not eat leaven. At the outset, when pride and willfulness preserve their power, they must be suppressed, set aside. They cannot be combated rationally for they can subvert the mind: "They are wise to do evil" (Jeremiah 4:22).
At the stage of the omer, we use our understanding to redirect our emotions. We use the leaven in ourselves to change ourselves.
And when, at the point of Shavuot, we reach the final openness of all our being to G-d, we are obliged to use the leaven, making every part of our nature into a channel for the light of G-d.
7. Every Day
The Rabbis tell us, "In every generation, and every day, a man is obliged to see himself as if he had gone out of Egypt that very day" (Talmud, Pesachim 116b; Tanya ch. 47). So each of the three stages of the Exodus are components of the task of every day.
In the beginning of our prayers we say, "I give acknowledgment before you . . ." (the modeh ani prayer). This is the acknowledgment, the surrender to G-d, that precedes understanding. It is the Nissan of the day, the individual Exodus.
There then follow the Psalms of Praise (pesukei dezimrah) and the shema and its benedictions. These are the prayers of meditation, and understanding. "Hear, O Israel," the first phrase of the shema, means "understand." And through this meditation, the emotions are awakened, and the love of G-d is aroused with "all your heart and all your soul and all your might." This is the daily equivalent of the month of Iyar and the counting of the omer.
But, so far, this represents only the battle against half, the "animal" half, of one's nature (bittul ha-yesh). There still awaits the final extinction of self-consciousness (bittul bi-metziut) which comes during the Amidah prayer, when "like a slave before his master" we have no self with which to speak. We are empty of words. We say, "O L-rd, open my lips." And this is the Sivan of the day, the moment when we confront -- like the Israelites at Sinai -- the all-possessing presence of G-d.
8. After the Shabbat
Now, finally, we realize why the Torah, in the verse quoted at the outset, says, "On the morrow of the Shabbat" instead of ". . . after the Passover."
To achieve the transformation of the "animal soul" demands the deepest reserves of spiritual energy. To have brought the Israelites out of their entrenched impurity needed more than an "angel" -- an emissary -- it needed G-d himself in His Glory and Essence. If this was true of the escape from evil, it is more so for the transformation of evil into good. The task demands a spiritual source able to enter into the heart of evil without being affected.
Shabbat is a source of intense spirituality. It is the apex of the week. But it still belongs to the week, and thus to time and the finite. "The morrow of the Shabbat" refers to the step beyond Shabbat, beyond time itself: A revelation higher than the world.
To count the forty-nine days of omer, that is, to transform into holiness every emotion that we feel, we must rest our efforts on the "morrow of the Shabbat" -- the light of G-d from beyond the world.
Plague among R. Akiva's Disciples Ends (circa 120 CE)
In the weeks between Passover and Shavuot, a plague decimated 24,000 students of the great sage Rabbi Akiva--a result, says the Talmud, of the fact that they "did not respect one another." The plague's cessation on Iyar 18--the 33rd day of the Omer Count or "Lag BaOmer"--is one of the reasons that the day is celebrated each year (see "Laws and Customs" below).
Links: Rabbi Akiva
Akiba ben Joseph
Knowledge Base » People & Events » People » Mishnaic Sages » Akiba ben Joseph
Akiba ben Joseph: (c. 50-c.135 CE) Among the greatest of the Mishnaic sages. Unless otherwise stated, all Mishnayos are presumed to be in accordance with the Rabbi Akiva's view. He was the son of converts, and an unlearned shepherd. At the age of 40, at the insistence of his wife, he began studying Torah,under Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, Joshua ben Hananiah, and Nahum Ish Gamzu ultimately attracting 24,000 students including Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai, Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Judah ben Ilai. He supported Bar Kochba's revolt. He was imprisoned and savagely murdered by the Romans for teaching Torah (he is one of the Ten Martyrs).
The Wisdom of Rabbi Akiba
Rabbi Akiba whom we remember especially on the day of Lag B'Omer, was the wisest and greatest Tanna (teacher) of his time, and one of the greatest of all times. When he passed away, "he left none like him," the Rabbis said. Many are the wise teachings and laws which he taught, and of which the Talmud is full. We bring you here some of his teachings:
A heathen once came to Rabbi Akiba, and asked him, 'Who created the world?'
'G-d created the world,' Rabbi Akiba replied.
'Prove it to me,' persisted the heathen.
'Come back tomorrow,' Rabbi Akiba told him.
The following day the heathen came back, and Rabbi Akiba engaged him in conversation. 'What are you wearing?', Rabbi Akiba asked him.
'A cloak, as you see.'
'Who made it?' Rabbi Akiba asked.
'The weaver, of course.'
'I don't believe it; prove it to me!' Rabbi Akiba persisted.
'What proof do you want? Cannot you see that the weaver has made the cloth?'
'Then why do you ask for proof that G-d created the world? Cannot you see that the Holy One blessed be He created it.'
And to his disciples Rabbi Akiba added, 'My children, just as the house is proof of the builder, and the cloth is proof of the weaver, and the door is proof of the joiner, so this world proclaims that G-d created it.'
* * *
Rabbi Akiba had learned and studied the Torah more deeply and extensively than anyone else, yet he was very humble, for he knew that the Torah is endless, for it is the wisdom of G-d. Said he, "All my learning is no more than like the fragrance of an Ethrog; the one who scents it, enjoys it; but the Ethrog loses nothing. Or it is as one who draws water from a spring, or lights a candle from a candle."
No wonder Rabbi Akiba despised a conceited and vain man, whose learning only filled him with self-importance and vain glory. Of such a man Rabbi Akiba said, "He is like a carcass lying on the road; whoever passes it puts his fingers to his nose, and hurries away from it."
The following story also illustrates his humility and respect for the Torah.
Rabbi Akiba was once called upon to read to the congregation a portion of the Torah, but he did not want to do it. His amazed disciples asked him, 'Master, have you not taught us that the Torah is our life and the length of our days? Why did you refuse to read it to the congregation?' And Rabbi Akiba replied, simply: 'Believe me, I had not prepared myself for it; for no man should address words of Torah to the public unless he has first revised them to himself three or four times.
Rabbi Akiba did not keep his learning to himself, but had many students and disciples, more than any other single teacher. As you know, he had no less than 24 thousand students at one time. Some of the greatest Rabbis of the next generation were among his disciples, as, for example, Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai, whose Yahrzeit is observed on Lag B'Omer. Together with another great Sage, Rabbi Chanina ben Chakinai, Rabbi Simeon went to Bene Beraq to learn Torah from Rabbi Akiba, and they stayed there for thirteen years!
Quoting a passage from Koheleth (11:6) "In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening do not rest thy hand," Rabbi Akiba explained it to mean: "Teach disciples in thy youth, and do not stop teaching in thy old age."
As you know, it is customary to say 'Perek' (Sayings of Our Fathers) on the Sabbath, beginning with the Sabbath after Pesach. Some say it until Shovuoth, others throughout the summer. Among the 'Fathers' whose teachings we find in this tractate of the Mishnah there is also Rabbi Akiba. In the third chiapter we find the following sayings of his:
"Jesting and frivolity lead a man on to immorality.
"The Massorah (Tradition) is a fence to the Torah.
"Tithes (the prescribed Tzedoko, charity) are a fence to riches.
"Vows (self-restraint) are a fence to a holy life.
"A fence to wisdom is silence."
He used to say:
"Beloved is man, for he was created in the image of G-d. . .
"Beloved are Israel, for they were called children of G-d. . .
"Beloved are Israel, for unto them was given the desirable Torah."
Man is indeed the beloved creature, and Israel has been chosen to receive the Torah; that is why one's responsibility is all the greater. And so he reminds us:
"Everything is foreseen (by G-d), yet freedom of choice is given; and the world is judged with grace, yet all is according to the amount of work accomplished."
Rabbi Akiba goes on to compare the world to a store, where anybody can come and buy things on credit, but everything is recorded in a ledger, and payment will have to be made. Said he:
"Everything is given on pledge, and a net is spread over all the living: the shop is open; and the shopkeeper gives credit; and the ledger lies open; and the hand writes; and whosoever wishes to borrow may come and borrow; but the collectors regularly make their daily rounds; and exact payment from man, whether he is willing or not.
We have no more room here to give you many more of his great sayings and teachings, so we will conclude with one of his favorite sayings, which will do us good to remember always:
"Whatever G-d does is for the best."
Rabbi Akiba in Prison
Rabbi Akiba lived at a time when the Romans were the rulers in the Holy Land, ever since they had destroyed the Beth Hamikdosh. There came a time when the Romans treated the Jews very harshly, and forbade them to study the Torah and observe the Mitzvoth. Rabbi Akiba, however, continued to teach his many pupils, until he was arrested and put into prison.
The warden of the prison permitted one of Rabbi Akiba's students to bring water to the prisoner. His name was Rabbi Joshua ha-Garsi (meaning, the Grinder of Beans, for this was his trade; there is another opinion that the name refers to his native town).
Every day Rabbi Joshua brought his master in prison a measure of water. Once the warden noticed what a large measure of water it was. "No man drinks so much water," the warden said suspiciously. "Maybe he wants to undermine the foundation of the prison?" Saying this, the warden poured out half of the water, and gave Rabbi Joshua the other half to take to the prisoner.
Asked why he was late, Rabbi Joshua explained to Rabbi Akiba what had happened. "Never mind," said Rabbi Akiba soothingly, "let me now wash my hands, so that I may have something to eat."
Rabbi Joshua ha-Garsi said, "If you use the water for washing your hands, there will not be enough water to drink!"
Then Rabbi Akiba said, "What can I do? To eat with unwashed hands is a sin. It is better to die of thirst than to commit a sin."
When the Sages later heard of Rabbi Akiba's conduct, they said, "If he acts in this pious way now that he is an old man, how much more careful must he have been when he was younger and stronger. And if he observes every law while he is in prison, how much stricter in his observance must he have been at home! Also, note how important is the Mitzvah of washing the hands before meals!"
TZEDAKAH DELIVERS FROM DEATH
The Daughter of Rabbi Akiba
The Star-Gazers Were Wrong
Rabbi Akiba’s daughter once went to the market to buy things for the home. As she passed a group of star-gazers and fortune–tellers, one of them said to the other: “see that lovely girl? What a dreadful calamity is awaiting her! She is going to die on the very day of her wedding. Mark my word!”
Rabbi Akiba’s daughter overheard the words of the star-gazer, but paid no attention to him. She had often heard it from her great father that he who observes the Mitzvoth of the holy Torah need fear no evil.
As the happy day of her wedding approached, she had forgoten all about that star-gazer. On the day before her wedding, there was much to do, and at night she retired to bed, tired but happy. Before going to bed, she removed her golden hair-pin and stuck it in the wall, as she had done before.
The following morning, she pulled her pin from the wall, and in doing so dragged a small but very poisonous snake with it. Horrified, she realized that she had killed the snake that was lurking in the wall's crevice when she stuck the pin into the wall the night before. What a wonderful miracle!
Then she remembered the words of the star-gazer, and shuddered.
She heard a knock on the door. “Are you alright, daughter? I heard you shriek,” her father said. Then he saw the dead snake still dangling from the pin. She told her father what happened.
“This is indeed a miracle,” Rabbi Akiba said. “Tell me, daughter, what did you do yesterday? There must have been some special Mitzvah that you performed yesterday to have been saved from this.”
“Well, the only thing that I can remember was this. Last night, when everybody was busy with the preparations for my wedding, a poor man came in, but nobody seemed to notice him, so busy everbody was. I saw that the poor man was very hungry, so I took my portion of the wedding-feast and gave it to him.”
Rabbi Akiba had always known that his daughter was very devoted to the poor, but this was something special, and he was very happy indeed. “Tzedoko (charity) delivereth from death,” he exclaimed.
Rachel, Rabbi Akiba's Wife
I am sure, all of you know of Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph, about whom our Sages say that he was one of the greatest Scholars of all times. With his sharp mind the Sages said, he could "uproot mountains," and he explained every single letter of the Torah, even the little crowns that adorn many of the letters of the Torah. Rabbi Akiba- was one of four great Sages who tried to enter the deepest secrets of the Creation and of learning, and he was the only one .who came out sound of body and sane of mind.
But do you also know that all the extraordinary scholarship of this most famous of all Tanaim was due to the self sacrificing love of Torah of his wife?
You see, Rabbi Akiba was not one of the fortunate ones who are born to riches, or into the house of a scholar. He had to get everything the hard way. He was born as the child of a very poor family and became an ignorant shepherd, one of the many who took care of the thousands of flocks of the wealthy Kalba Sabua, about whose riches the Talmud tells many stories. The daughter of this fabulous man, was a beautiful and G-d fearing girl. The richest and most learned young men of that time would have considered themselves fortunate to marry her. But Rachel, Kalba Sabua's only child, the heir to his riches, had observed the shepherd Akiba and some inner voice told her that this ignorant youth had the making of a great scholar. On the condition that he would leave her father's work to go and study Torah, she married him secretly.
As Rachel refused one young man after the other, Kalba Sabua found out about her secret marriage to his former shepherd. He was very angry and he vowed that he would have nothing to do with her or her husband. Gladly, the only child of the richest man of those days left all the luxuries and comforts to which she had been used, and went to live with Akiba in a shack, sleeping on a bundle of straw, and working hard with her own, soft hands, so that her husband could devote himself to the study of Torah. Once when she could not find work, she even cut off her beautiful long hair to sell it, so that she would have some money with which to buy a dry crust of bread for both.
Yet even in their poverty, they were willing to share with others the little they possessed. Once a poor man passed the shack of Akiba and Rachel, and begged, "Pray, good people, let me have a handful of straw. My wife is sick and I have nothing to bed her on." At once Akiba shared his own bundle of straw with the poor man, remarking thus to Rachel: "See, my child, there are those who fare worse than we." The poor beggar, say our sages, was none but the Prophet Elijah who had come to test Akiba's good heart.
After Akiba had mastered the basic knowledge of the Torah, his wife and he agreed that he was to go to the academy of the great scholars of those days, headed by Rabbi Eliezer, to devote twelve years to intensive study. Thus the two parted and for twelve long years Rachel slaved hard to support herself, while her husband grew to become one of the most learned of all men that ever lived. At the end of twelve years Rabbi Akiba returned to his wife, as he had promised. When he came before the shabby old shack he heard a conversation between his wife and a neighbor who was taunting Rachel for being foolish enough to wait and slave for her husband who had left her to study Torah. "You could live in riches and luxuries, if you were not so foolish," said the woman.
"For my part he could stay away another twelve years at the Yeshivah to acquire more knowledge," was Rachel's reply.
Full of pride and admiration for his great wife Rabbi Akiba turned around to do as Rachel wanted him to do.
At the conclusion of the twenty four years Rabbi Akiba had become the most famous of all living scholars. From near and far came the youth of Israel to study under his direction.
Accompanied by twenty four thousand students, Rabbi Akiba returned home in a triumphant journey from city to city, welcomed everywhere by the highest nobility. The masses, rich and poor, turned out when he came home to Jerusalem.
Kalba Sabua, too, was among those who tried to get close to the master. Suddenly Rabbi Akiba saw his disciples trying to hold back a woman dressed in ragged clothes. At once he made his way through the crowd to greet the woman and led her to the chair by his side. "If not for this woman I would be an ignorant shepherd, unable to read the Aleph Beth. Whatever I know, I owe to her," Rabbi Akiba declared.
The whole huge crowd bowed in respect before the woman to whom Rabbi Akiba owed his great scholarship. Kalba Sabua, too, suddenly discovered who his son-in-law was. Publicly he expressed his regret for having treated his daughter and her husband so badly. Now all his wealth would be theirs.
Thus ends our story of Rachel, Rabbi Akiba's wife, whose heroism and self-sacrifice gave us the great Rabbi Akiba.
The Fox and the Fishes
Talmud, Berachot 61b
Once, the wicked government [of Rome] decreed that the Jewish people were forbidden to study Torah. Pappus ben Judah saw Rabbi Akiva convening gatherings in public and studying Torah [with them]. Said he to him: "Akiva, are you not afraid of the government?"
Said [Rabbi Akiva] to him: "I'll give you a parable.
"A fox was walking along a river and saw fish rushing to and fro. Said he to them: 'Why are you fleeing?'
"Said they to him: 'The nets that the humans spread for us.'
"Said he to them: 'Why don't you come out onto the dry land? We'll live together, as my ancestors lived with your ancestors.'
"Said they to him: 'Are you the one of whom it is said that you are the wisest of animals? You're not wise, but foolish! If, in our environment of life, we have cause for fear, how much more so in the environment of our death!'
"The same applies to us: if, now, when we sit and study the Torah, of which it is said (Deuteronomy 30:20), For it is your life and the lengthening of your days, such is our situation, how much more so if we neglect it....
24,000 Plus One
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Courtesy of MeaningfulLife.com
There was once a man who had twenty-four thousand disciples. He taught them to love, but their love was too absolute, too true, to be loving. They died, and their death spawned a period of mourning that darkens our calendar to this very day.
This man had one disciple who devoted his entire life -- literally his every minute -- to the pursuit of truth. Yet his truth was true enough to love. He, too, passed from this world, and the anniversary of his passing is celebrated as a day of joy and festivity to this very day.
This, in a word, is the story of Lag BaOmer -- the story of Rabbi Akiva and his greatest disciple, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
A Celebrated Death
The 18th of Iyar is Lag BaOmer -- the 33rd day of the Omer Count which spans the seven weeks from Passover to Shavuot. Two joyous occasions are associated with this day. During the Omer period we mourn the deaths of 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who died in a plague because, as the Talmud informs us, "They did not conduct themselves with respect for each other"; Lag BaOmer is the day on which the plague ended and the dying ceased. Lag BaOmer is also the anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Akiva's greatest disciple, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Before his death (many years later, without connection to the plague), Rabbi Shimon referred to the day of his passing as "the day of my happiness" and instructed his disciples that it be observed each year as a day of joyous celebration.
Why is the passing of Rabbi Akiva's other disciples mourned as a national tragedy, while the passing of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is remembered with celebration and joy? Indeed, the very same day that celebrates the end of the dying of Rabbi Akiva's disciples, celebrates the death of his greatest disciple! To unravel the paradox of Lag BaOmer, we must first examine the root of the disrespect that caused the plague amongst Rabbi Akiva's disciples.
Rabbi Akiva taught that "Love your fellow as yourself is a cardinal principle in Torah"; indeed, this is the most famous of his teachings. One would therefore expect that Rabbi Akivas disciples would be the foremost exemplars of this principle. How was it that they, of all people, were deficient in this area?
But their very diligence in fulfilling the precept "Love your fellow as yourself" was their undoing. Our sages have said that "Just as every person's face differs from the faces of his fellows, so, too, every person's mind differs from the minds of his fellows." When the twenty-four-thousand disciples of Rabbi Akiva studied their master's teachings, the result was twenty-four-thousand nuances of understanding, as the same concepts were assimilated by twenty-four-thousand minds -- each unique and distinct from its 23,999 fellows. Had Rabbi Akiva's students loved each other less, this would have been a matter of minor concern; but because each disciple loved his fellows as he loved himself, he felt compelled to correct their erroneous thinking and behavior, and to enlighten them as to the true meaning of their master's words. For the same reason, they found themselves incapable of expressing a hypocritical respect for each others' views when they sincerely believed that the others' understanding was lacking, even in the slightest degree.
The greater a person is, the higher are the standards by which he is judged; in the words of our sages, "With the righteous, G-d is exacting to a hairsbreadth." Thus, what for people of our caliber would be considered a minor failing had such a devastating effect upon the disciples of Rabbi Akiva.
The Thirteenth Year
But there was one disciple of Rabbi Akiva who learned to overcome the pitfalls of uncompromising love and uncompromising truth, as exemplified by the following incident in the life of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai:
The Talmud relates that when the Roman rulers of the Holy Land placed a price on the heads of Rabbi Shimon and his son Rabbi Elazar, they hid in a cave for twelve years. During this time, they spent every minute of their day studying Torah. When they emerged from the cave, they were shocked to discover people plowing and sowing: how could people set aside the eternal life that is Torah and occupy their days with the transitory life of the material? So intense was their wrath at such folly that whatever met with their burning glance went up in flames. Proclaimed a voice from heaven: "Have you come out to destroy My world? Return to your cave!" Rabbi Shimon's thirteenth year of study, while increasing his knowledge and appreciation of the truth of Torah, also taught him the value of endeavors other than his own. Now, wherever he went, his look would heal rather than destroy.
The 4,000-year history of Jewish learning has known many great and diligent students of Torah; yet none epitomized the absolute devotion to the pursuit of the divine truth to the extent exemplified by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Throughout the writings of our sages, his example is cited as the ultimate case of torato um'nato, "one whose study of Torah is his sole vocation."
Certainly, then, Rabbi Shimon's commitment to truth was no less absolute than that of Rabbi Akiva's other disciples. Yet his truth was true enough to love. In his thirteenth year in the cave, he attained a dimension of the divine truth that tolerates, indeed embraces, the many and diverse avenues of connection to G-d which the Creator has provided to a humanity whose minds, characters and temperaments are as diverse as their number. In his thirteenth year in the cave, Rabbi Shimon attained a level of truth in which he could utterly devote himself to the eternal life that is Torah, and advocate such devotion for everyone else, and at the same time appreciate and respect the path of those who serve G-d via the temporal life of material endeavors.
So the very same day that celebrates the end of the plague amongst Rabbi Akiva's disciples also celebrates the passing of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. The Chassidic masters explain that the passing of a righteous person marks the point at which "all his deeds, teachings and works" attain the pinnacle of fulfillment and realization and the point of their most powerful influence upon our lives. And the deeds, teaching and works of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai are the ultimate rectification of Rabbi Akiva's disciples' tragic failure to achieve the proper synthesis of love and truth that would make their love true and their truth loving.
As noted above, it is only among men of the caliber of Rabbi Akiva's disciples that such a failing could bode such devastating results. But our sages chose to record this story for posterity and fix it in our lives with a series of laws that govern our behavior in the weeks between Passover and Shavuot each year. Obviously, we, too, have something to learn from what happened to Rabbi Akiva's disciples.
THE LESSON IS TWO FOLD
The lesson is twofold: we must learn from their virtues as well as from their mistakes. We must learn to care enough for our fellow man not to indulge his errors and accommodate his failings. This might be the easiest and most socially comfortable way to behave, but, rather than tolerance, it bespeaks an indifference toward his or her welfare. On the other hand, we must never allow our commitment to his betterment to lessen in the slightest our respect and esteem toward him, no matter how misguided and unresponsive he might be.
If this seems paradoxical, it is. But the ability to embrace this paradox is at the very heart of the Torah's commandment to "Love your fellow as yourself." For in regard to ourselves, it is a paradox with which we are quite comfortable -- every psychologically healthy person loves himself unconditionally and, at the same time, incessantly strives to improve himself. This paradox we must also cultivate in our relationship with others: on the one hand, we must never compromise our efforts to improve our fellow man out of respect for his views and feelings; on the other hand, we must never allow these efforts to compromise our love and respect for him.
For to succumb to either compromise is to fail to love him as we love ourselves -- a principle which Rabbi Akiva considered fundamental to G-d's blueprint for life and of which Hillel said: "This is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary."