Joyous! Overwhelmed! Ecstatic! These words are usually reserved for life’s big ones. Like the time the human resources department called to tell you that you got that dream job. Or when you finally heard the magic words, “It’s a healthy baby.”
Lag B’Omer is that kind of day. Close to a quarter of a million people are drawn to the tiny northern Israeli village of Meron, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s final resting place. It is a 24-hour spiritual festival with music, dancing, intense prayers, and a teeming street bazaar where the latest edition of the Zohar (the core text of Jewish mysticism) are raucously hawked alongside pictures of tzaddikim (righteous rabbis), hand-shaped amulets, and colored scarves. Scores of three year olds are there for their first haircut, which will take place in the presence of their family and the tens of thousands of Jews of all stripes and colors who throng to Rabbi Shimon.
This all takes place in the midst of Sefirat HaOmer, the 50-day count up between Passover and Shavuot. This time period is accompanied by laws that require a degree of mourning. No weddings. No music. The mourning is a reminder of the terrible death of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students who all passed on during this time period.
Then comes Lag B’Omer, like a dazzling diamond in a sea of banal grey. What’s it all about?
The famous reason for the joy of Lag B’Omer is that the students of Rabbi Akiva ceased dying on this day. But the reason they stopped dying was because there were no more students left! Is that a reason to celebrate?
Why were so many Torah scholars struck down by the plague? The Sages say that they did not treat each other with kavod – respect – and therefore they were stricken with a disease that caused them to choke to death. The Hebrew term kavod shares the same letters as the Hebrew word that means “heavy.” This heaviness implies recognizing another person as significant. It means making him feel that you want to listen to him, and that he has a worthwhile message that only he can convey.
What makes a person unique? Externally, we may share similar characteristics, but internally our souls are vastly different. Rabbi Akiva’s students failed to recognize that every Jew has infinite value and has a distinctive approach – simply because he is different than all other people. They were punished with choking – a state where a person cannot take in air. Failing to give proper respect to another person means ceasing to take in ruach – spirit. When a person does not honor another Jew, it shows that he has stopped appreciating that person’s unique spirit.
My son-in-law Yisrael was almost 20 when he joined our family. I will never forget an incident that happened on one of the very first Shabbats that he shared with us. A family friend dropped in. Yisrael noticed my little four-year-old shyly watching the scene. He had been enjoying getting to know his new big brother-in-law but the entrance of another unknown adult caused him to retreat. Yisrael smiled, held out his hand and introduced him to the visitor. “This is my friend Yehudah,” he said of his young brother-in-law. Yehudah beamed. He was a person, worthy of acknowledgment.
With this in mind, we can go back to Meron and get a handle on what it’s all about.
Every Jew deserves respect, especially a talmid chacham – a Torah sage – because his soul is entwined with Torah. Really knowing someone means knowing his thoughts. Learning Torah means knowing God’s thoughts and bonding your mind to God’s mind. It means inculcating Divine traits and growing close to God. So when one gives respect to a Torah scholar, in essence one gives respect to that part of God that lives inside every great Jew.
Why do we celebrate on Lag B’Omer? We rejoice that Rabbi Akiva did not succumb to despair after his monumental loss. We marvel at his exceptional fortitude in gathering five new students and transmitting to them the Oral Tradition we have today. Rabbi Akiva taught, “V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha, zeh klal gadol ba’Torah – Love your friend as yourself, this is a prime principle of the Torah.” Torah takes you to a place where you can find God. The first place where you can find Him is within the heart of every Jew.
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was one of the five students of Rabbi Akiva. He revealed the secrets of the Torah – how to find the divine spark within oneself and in other people. Rabbi Shimon said to come to his tomb on the anniversary of his death, Lag B’Omer, and to rejoice.
The Maharal quotes the Zohar which says it is easier to build a connection with a tzaddik after his death, because then he is no longer constrained by physicality. Some aspect of the tzaddik’s spirit remains at his resting place and it wishes to give of itself. However, the degree to which you identify with the tzaddik is the degree to which the tzaddik will identify with you. On Lag B’Omer when we visit Rabbi Shimon’s tomb we are in essence saying, “Rabbi Shimon, you brought inner meaning and reality into the world, we want to see inner meaning and goodness in ourselves and in other people. Please help us do so.”
Wherever you may be this Lag B’Omer, if you take a moment to identify with another’s inner Godliness, you will absorb the profound message of the day.
This article is based on a class, The Beauty of Every Jew, presented by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller on Naaleh.com.
Rebbetzin Heller is a noted author and senior lecturer at Neve Yerushalayim and Naaleh.com. Her most recent book, The Balancing Act, addressing the challenges of today’s Jewish woman, is available on Artscroll.com. Rebbetzin Heller’s lectures on Fundamentals of Jewish Thought and The Book of Daniel will be offered online this summer as part of the Judaic Studies Bachelor’s Program at Naaleh College www.naalehcollege.com.