Rashbi and the Rainbow

Why do we celebrate Rashbi's life so brightly?

Rabbi S. Weiss,

Judaism לבן ריק
לבן ריק
Arutz 7

Lag B'Omer is a most mysterious holiday. We know it marks the end of 33 days of mourning for Rabbi Akiva's
Shimon bar Yochai, one of the most mystical and mysterious figures in Jewish history.
students, but it is best known for the bonfires that light up the landscape of Israel. What do these fires signify?

Lag B'Omer is also the yahrtzeit of Shimon bar Yochai, one of the most mystical and mysterious figures in Jewish history. Who was he and why do we celebrate his life so brightly?

To begin to answer, let's recall a very mysterious story about bar Yochai (known by his acronym "Rashbi"). Sought by the Romans for slandering them, Rashbi and his son run away and hide in a cave for 12 years. A carob tree and a spring of water miraculously nourish them; they take off their clothes and sit in sand up to their necks, blissfully studying Torah all day long.

Then Eliyahu the Prophet comes and informs them that the Roman emperor has died; it is now safe to emerge. Stepping out of their cave, they see men plowing their fields and angrily declare: "These people forsake eternal life (Torah study) and embrace mundane, temporary life!" Whatever they look at is burnt up in fire.

G-d then orders Rashbi and his son back into the cave for one more year. When they emerge again, they see a man running late on Friday afternoon with two bundles of myrtle.

"What are those for?" they ask.

"To light on Shabbat," says the man, "one for zachor and one for shamor!"

Rashbi is impressed: "See how precious the mitzvot are to Israel," he says; and his spirit is finally eased.

We are told - as a way of indicating the righteousness of bar Yochai - that in his generation no rainbow was seen. Why not? Because the rainbow is a post-Flood sign of G-d's promise to protect us. But when a generation has a tzadik like Rashbi in it, he protects the nation; and so, no rainbow is needed.

But Rashbi needed to learn that not everyone in this world can be a tzadik who learns Torah in a cave all day.
Humanity itself is a rainbow.
Most people need to work and lead normal lives. "Regular" people make lots of mistakes, but have redeeming qualities, too. And when they do even the simplest mitzvah, such as lighting Shabbat candles, they are precious in G-d's sight.

Rashbi's eyes are illuminated when he understands that humanity itself is a rainbow; we come in all colors of the spectrum and each human being has a spark of holiness. The fact that all Israel lights fires on Lag B'Omer - even though they may not know why! - is a symbol of our collective kedushah. In fact, Lag B'Omer may be a tikkun for the actions of Rabbi Akiva's students. They did not respect each other enough, but by our joining together in one giant blaze of glory, we shine a beacon of unity into the Heavens that can dispel any plague.