Sefirat HaOmer: Striking Balance

Every Jew has to count because every Jew counts.

Rabbanit Shira Smiles,

Young women study Torah
Young women study Torah
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This condensed version summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein. To hear the whole class, see links at end of the text. Edited by the staff of

The period between Pesach and Shavuot, sefirat ha'omer, is considered a time of mourning for the death of Rabbi
Every character trait has both positive and negative aspects.
Akiva's 24,000 disciples. Yet Lag B'omer, the thirty-third day in this period, is considered a day of rejoicing. How do we reconcile this inconsistency? The simple explanation is that on that day Rabbi Akiva's students ceased from dying.

While that in of itself would certainly be reason to rejoice, the explanation goes much deeper. It is true that 24,000 students died, but five students later remained; five who were so illustrious as to keep the legacy of Rabbi Akiva's Torah alive and move it to even greater heights. The most illustrious of these students was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar.

The history of the Jews as a separate and distinct people begins in Egypt and continues with our redemption, our wandering in the desert, culminating with our acceptance of the Torah at Sinai as one people with one heart, one community. This whole process began with the sale of Joseph, who ended up in Egypt as a servant to Potifar. But even though the sale of Joseph was instrumental in creating our nation, the brothers who sold him still committed a cardinal sin and were liable for the death penalty. They were never punished, but the taint of their sin carried forward through the generations and during the Roman Empire the Romans killed ten great sages of Israel. These, our tradition tells us, constituted the atonement for the ten brothers who conspired in the sale of Joseph. Among these sages was Rabbi Akiva.

There is also the matter of the number of students who died; 24,000 deaths through a plague is familiar to us from the Torah. In the desert, that same number of Israelites died at Shittim because of the sin of worshipping Baal Peor.

There seems to be a thread running through from Biblical times, from Joseph to the generation in the desert, ending with Rabbi Akiva and the Roman Empire. It is fascinating to examine the salient personalities of each of these times and connect the individual strands.

Every character trait has both positive and negative aspects. Love of one human being for another is among the highest traits one can have, as exhibited by our patriarch Abraham. But unrestrained love becomes perverted, and requires the controlling influence of the inner strength and discipline of a Yitzchak. The synthesis of these two elements is achieved in Jacob and reaches its zenith with Joseph, who withstood the temptation of Potifar's wife and remained true to his heritage.

This love coupled with restraint served as the model for the Jews in Egypt. Without this synthesis, love is not true; it is egotistical and self-serving rather than giving, and breeds anarchy rather than community.

This absence of restraint was the main focus in the worship of Baal Peor - a total negation of all human decency, a statement that no one can tell me what to do for only I am my own master and my own god, and I live only for my own gratification. This group was then reincarnated as Rabbi Akiva and his 24,000 disciples. Their souls had learned the lesson that love must have boundaries. They loved each other completely, recognizing themselves and each other as parts of a complete whole, of a community, and understood that they all served the One True God in holiness.

But they had not yet learned to honor and respect each other as unique individuals, each with his own special path and unique talent in the service of HaShem. They lacked the vision and ultimate discipline to synthesize the love of individual faculties and personalities within the group and respect that individuality. They did not die because they loved improperly, as those in Shittim, but rather because they did not accord each other proper respect. This was their specific mission in this incarnation, and they failed. This was the reason they suffered the harsh punishment of death.

They refused to accept that one may be unrestrained in the performance of one's passion, as long as it is focused on the service of HaShem, as King David danced unrestrainedly and unabashedly before the Ark of the Covenant, even while his wife Michal felt this was undignified. In recent history, the Alter of Slobodka would dance before a bride and groom in a similar way; it was not beneath the dignity of this great sage to use his talent to perform the great mitzvah of gladdening the hearts of a bride and groom.

The sin of Baal Peor occurred in Shittim in the desert. The sin of Rabbi Akiva's disciples was a sin of not recognizing the shitah, the path of another as a valid path to the service of HaShem.

We are still left with the question of the joy of Lag B'Omer, when the disciples stopped dying. According to this
Without this synthesis, love is not true; it is egotistical and self-serving rather than giving.
interpretation, Shimon bar Yochai is the reincarnation of Shimon, Jacob's son. Just as the first Shimon was an instigator and rabble-rouser, so too was this Shimon. He spoke against Rome, seeing in all their improvements merely selfish purposes. When the Romans were informed of his views, they sentenced him to death. He escaped by living in a cave for twelve years, just as the earlier Shimon's actions caused Joseph to be incarcerated in the depths of Egypt for twelve years.

Joseph's circumspection in family matters was the model for B'nei Yisroel in the den of depravity that was Egypt. The Israelites were redeemed and eventually received the Torah through a circuitous route beginning with Shimon. Because of his soul's previous incarnation, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was given the privilege of revealing the secrets of the holy Torah as he lived in the cave. From Shimon son of Jacob, Shimon bar Yochai inherited the concept of seeing holiness in every human being.

In the laws of counting the omer, each Jew must count for himself; yet, all Jews follow the same sequence at the same time. Every Jew has to count because every Jew counts. Every Jew is both an important individual and an important part of the community.

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