ט״ז באייר ה׳תשע״ד (May 16, 2014)
This Sunday is a day of great celebration, Lag Be’Omer, 33rd day of the 49 day stretch between Pesach and Shavuot. The day commemorates two greats of Jewish history, Rabbi Akiva and his student Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (known by the acronym Rashbi). Both of these great sages, who lived around the time of the Second Temple’s destruction (70 CE), had lives tormented by their Roman oppressors.
Rabbi Akiva, who started out as a simple shepherd, yet managed to become one of the great leaders of the Jewish people, was eventually arrested for defying Hadrian’s edicts forbidding Torah study, and sentenced to public torture and death. His death, preceded by a gruesome flaying of the skin, is recorded in the poem of the Ten Martyrs, recited during the Yom Kippur service.
Rabbi Shimon, sentenced to death for slander of the Roman authorities, was forced into hiding for twelve years until it was safe to re-enter society. Even his wife and closest friends were unable to communicate with him due to the great danger during that time.
These two great scholars and mystics, teacher and pupil, intersect on Lag Be’Omer. On this day, we remember Rabbi Akiva, whose 24,000 students died of an epidemic which ended on Lag Be’Omer; and we remember Rabbi Shimon whose soul returned to heaven on this very day.
Yet despite the fact that this is the anniversary of Rabbi Shimon’s passing, surprisingly we find that it is a day of great rejoicing.
Rabbi Shimon himself referred to his imminent passing as yom simchato, a joyful day. He saw his transition to the next world from a totally different perspective than we normally do. It is normal for us to grieve when people we love pass away, and it would be a cruel person who did not. But viewed from a spiritual perspective, this world is just a transitional phase, a mission for the soul that must be completed before it returns home.
Rashbi was the author of the cornerstone text of Jewish mysticism – the Zohar, and in the Zohar we find concepts which explain why he wanted his passing to be a day of rejoicing. The soul, bound in a physical frame in this world, has limited perception of G-d and revelation. Only once the soul is freed from its physical constraints and ascends to the heavens are the gates of inner light and wisdom opened before it; only then is the true depth of its Torah study revealed, and only then is the reward for its mitzvot granted.
This is why Rashbi wanted his passing to be a day of rejoicing … for all he had been immersed in for his entire life was now about to be revealed to him in amazing depth and clarity.
If you travel to his gravesite in Meron, northern Israel, on Lag Be’Omer every year you will see that his wishes are not ignored. The celebrations that take place there are memorable, as literally hundreds of thousands of people sing and dance long into the night.
Rabbi Akiva, who is buried in Tiberias, overlooking the waters of the Kineret, has a life-story that possibly only Steven Spielberg could do justice to. Raised without a good Jewish education and trained as a shepherd, he married against the wishes of his father-in-law and lived in poverty. Only at age forty did he begin studying Torah, becoming a leading scholar and mystic with 24,000 students and a legacy of Torah teachings. Eventually he was martyred by the Romans in a cruel death and died with the Shema on his lips, proud that he could sanctify the name of G-d in public.
The Talmud in Berachot tells a few anecdotes about Rabbi Akiva, his wisdom and courage. In one instance, after the Romans had banned Torah study, Akiva continued to convene public Torah classes. He was asked by a colleague, “Are you not afraid of the regime?” to which Akiva replied with a parable. “Imagine,” he said, “a river filled with fish, all fleeing from the fishermen’s nets. A fox on the riverbank gives them a sly offer of shelter on dry land with him. The fish reply, ‘If we are in danger now, whilst still in the river which is our source of life, do you really think we would be safer leaving our source of life?!'”
Explained Rabbi Akiva, “Torah study is our life-blood, and the study of it gives us life. Yes, there is danger, but far more dangerous for the Jewish people would be the cessation of Torah study.”
When finally captured by Roman soldiers and whilst being subjected to horrific public torture, Akiva cried out the words of the Shema. His students, looking on in horror, were incredulous. “Our teacher,” they called out, “do you go this far?” meaning, how can you have the presence of mind to recite prayers even while wracked with pain. His answer remains with us, recorded for posterity; he replied to them that throughout his life, there was one “mitzva” he had not yet fulfilled, that of giving one’s life in the sanctification of G-d’s name. “This is my chance,” he told them, cried out the words of the Shema, and passed away as the last syllable of Echad left his lips.
As we celebrate on Lag Be’Omer, with festivities, song and dance, maybe we can also reflect on the messages we learn from these two sages. From Rabbi Shimon we learn of the primacy of the soul, and that this world is merely a transitory experience, a trip for the soul to collect Torah and mitzvot; from Rabbi Akiva we learn the importance of Torah study, vibrant and abundant now, two thousand years later, only because of his dedication and sacrifice, and the inspiration of those like him. Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Zalman Lent
(Photo: Tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, Meron by Robert Pass)
Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of Chabad of Ireland.
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