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Lag B'Omer: Soothing the National Pain

By Rabbi Lazer Brody
4/26/2013, 12:04 PM

Lag B’Omer falls this year on Saturday night and Sunday, April 27-28, 2013

The two most significant events of Lag B’omer are the cessation of the plague that killed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students and the yahrtzeit of Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai. We find an amazing connection between these two seemingly unrelated events.

Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students

The Gemara (tractate Yevamot 62b) relates that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students, all whom them died in a few short weeks between Pesach and Shavuot because they didn’t properly respect each other.

Why were these gentle Torah scholars punished so harshly? Don’t think for a moment that they verbally abused one another, or that they were guilty of humiliating or slandering one another. Heaven forbid! Rebbe Akiva’s 24,000 students were simply smug toward one another. They didn’t adequately listen to what their fellow student had to say. Each thought that he knew better or was a tiny bit better than his fellow, thinking that his tribe, his clan, his bloodline and his family were a little bit better or more prestigious than that of his study partner.

As soon as one person thinks he’s better than someone else, his heart and mind turn off to that other person. One says to himself, “What can I possibly learn from him? I’m better than he is!” Such an attitude not only stifles Torah growth but personal growth as well. It uproots the entire time-tested system of learning Torah with a chevruta (study partner) and in groups. Rebbe Nachman of Breslev explains (Likutei Moharan I:34), that every individual has a special talent and strength that no one else has. Therefore, when we learn with others, we receive their special illumination from the way the Torah reflects on their souls. This makes us ever so richer. Rebbe Akiva’s students were therefore punished for not taking advantage of each other to climb higher in the true service of Hashem.

No one can be the best in everything. When I look around at my neighbors, I see one young man who’s has a brilliant analytical mind for in-depth Gemara study. The man that lives in the adjacent apartment looks like a simple merchant, for he has a vegetable store, but he knows Shulchan Aruch by heart and is a walking encyclopedia of Jewish law. One floor down is the neighborhood’s Doctor Feelgood who makes everyone laugh and never lets anyone feel sad. His neighbor is a quiet, unassuming paramedic who served in Unit 669, the IAF's special pilot-rescue unit. He is so giving and humble, answering calls in the middle of the night to anyone in the neighborhood who seeks assistance. Every one is a diamond. Those irresponsible politicians and journalists who label fellow Jews as "parasites", G-d forbid, have no idea who and what they are taking about. Apparently, they haven't yet learned what killed Rebbe Akiva's 24,000 students and what destroyed the Second Temple - the same root cause of disrespect and intramural hate.

Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai

Lag B'Omer, the 33rd day in the counting of the Omer, falls on 18th day of Iyar, the yahrtzeit (anniversary of the death) of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, one of our foremost Mishnaic sages. The Zohar tells us that on the day Rabbi Shimon passed away, a great light of endless joy filled the day, because of the previously hidden Torah wisdom that he revealed to his students. This secret wisdom was written down and recorded in the holy Zohar. The Zohar, the compendium of Jewish esoteric thought that is presented to us via Rebbe Shimon’s inner-dimensional elaborations on Torah, happiness, is a phenomenal reason to rejoice. So much so that the day of Rebbe Shimon’s passing, the sun did not set until Rabbi Shimon had revealed all that he was permitted to. As soon as he was done, the sun set, and his soul returned to its Creator.

The happiness of back then has become a Jewish tradition. Each year, hundreds of thousands of overjoyed Jews make the Lag B’Omer pilgrimage to Rebbe Shimon’s holy gravesite in Miron in the Upper Galilee. There is dancing, singing, and bonfires. Little boys of three get their first haircuts, kippa, and sidecurls (photo, left). Awesome amounts of food and drink are offered to everyone everywhere.

The Tikkun

As it turns out, Lag B’Omer in Miron achieves the tikkun, the exact spiritual correction of the blemish caused by the fact that Rebbe Akiva’s 24,000 students didn’t properly respect one another. We still need that tikkun, because of all the irresponsible politicians and media who purvey hate and ugly stereotypes about entire segments of our population in a manner that the worst anti-Semite would be proud of. Don't envy the hate mongers, for their end is always a bitter one. Join those who seek love, mutual respect and unity among the Jewish People. That's what Lag B'Omer is all about.

In Miron, close to half a million people are trying to touch or at least obtain a glimpse of Rebbe Shimon’s holy gravesite. The pressure of the crowds is tremendous. Yet no one pushes and no one has an angry word. Everyone offers you food and drink. Satmer Chassidim from Mea Shearim dance with soldiers wearing knitted kippas on their heads. Ashkenazim and Sefardim, Chassidim and Lithuanian, national religious and even non-religious are forced together in very close quarters. Love, brotherhood, and a wonderful feeling of happiness and friendship prevail.

The tiny Land of Israel has a long list of aches and troubles, from within and from without. Yet, the unity of Lag B’Omer soothes the national pain. That in itself is reason to celebrate.

(We invite you to visit Rabbi Lazer Brody’s award-winning daily web journal, “Lazer Beams”)