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To Love & Respect

in honor of Rabbi Eli Stern 

 A bright light of confusion surrounds the day we call Lag B'omer [day 33 of the Omer], one marked by incredible festivities, cessation of Sefira mourning and a general transcendent sense. Ask one Jew what it is and even he might give you two opinions. According to Pri Megadim (1), something is special about the day even as we are not sure exactly what it is. If he's not sure, them I'm not either. Two basic schools of thought (there are more) posit that the Lag B'omer specialness emanates from

a. ... the fact that the students of Rabbi Akiva stopped dying on this day
b. ... something related to
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai
       i. He died on this day/ ii. He revealed the secrets of Kabbalah on this day

Each approach has its problems (all thoroughly explicated by the poskim). Consider: If Rabbi Akiva's students stopped dying on Lag B'omer because there was no one left, is that really a reason to celebrate? Alternatively, if they were dying throughout the omer period, save for a special Lag B'omer hiatus, then it merely begs the question, why did they stop dying on this day - which brings us to our second reason.

A celebration of one's yahrtzeit (anniversary of one's death), particularly that of a tzaddik [like Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai] (2), is a decidedly unconventional means of commemoration. Indeed, Ramo recommends that one should fast on yahrtzeit. (Ironically, Lag B'omer is also the day of Ramo's yahrtzeit). Thus Chasam Sofer and others discourage a celebration. At this point, any Chassidic reader will scoff at this decidedly cold and cursory analysis - can million Jews flocking to Meron for music, merriment, fire making and chalaka be wrong (or without basis)? I would probably go myself.

Amidst the confusion, here's a thought to ponder. According to the Talmudic version (Yevamos 62b) 12,000 pairs of students died during the omer period because shelo nahagu kavod zeh bazeh (lit. they did not act with respect towards each other). Without question, we are analyzing great men of spirit possessing a subtle flaw. On their level though, the Talmud presents a short but stark condemnation by linking their deaths (or perhaps more precisely, their lost opportunity to transmit Torah to the next generation), to this very character weakness.

A classic question: How could it be that the students of Rabbi Akiva, great purveyor of the message v'ahavta l'reiacha kamocha  - zeh klal gadol batorah; (Love your neighbor as yourself - this is the great rule of the Torah) be deficient precisely in the area their Rebbe mastered; by extension we must ask the obvious and painful question: does this not reflect negatively upon the Master himself?

It is a famous question with many answers. A famous and cute approach teaches that Rabbi Akiva began peddling the message as a result of this dark period. For so many reasons, it is difficult to hear this answer.

Rav Tzadok and the Lubavitcher Rebbe distinguish between respect and love. One may love someone without respecting him - creating a noxious and suffocating admixture. Consider the parent

a. .. who cherishes music and desperately wants the child to feel the same pleasure - forcing him to play piano. (that the child may be tone deaf is a technical detail.)
b. .. who so much wants the child to be successful that he demands that his (attention deficit disorder) child sit through the most rigorous academic courses shuttling him from tutor to test

Love without respect is like hugging the child without giving him room to breathe. It is a smothering, suffocating and identity-less existence.

Precisely because Rabbi Akiva's students had deep love for the other, they demanded that their colleague/study partners tow their line. Their boundless love was divorced from the necessary respect that each talmid had his own unique approach and connection with Hashem created. 

Now consider Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai who walks out of the cave. After 12 years of hiding out from the Romans wih his son Rav Elazar, for the sin of teaching Torah, Eliyahu informs him that the coast is clear (the emperor is dead). As they walk out, he sees a simple farmer doing his thing.

So they emerged. Seeing a man plowing and sowing, they exclaimed, 'They forsake life eternal and engage in life temporal!' Whatever they cast their eyes upon was immediately burnt up.

Rabbi Shimon is incensed - Why ?

For Rabbi Shimon [cf. Brachos 35b] every moment of this-worldly focus is vacuous. His pithy comment of manichin chayei olam v'oskim b'chayei sha'a (they forsake life eternal and engage in life temporal) is an expression of utter disdain. Looking in the farmer's direction, (in Talmudic lexicon) Rabbi Shimon burns him with his eyes. The scene repeats itself a few times. Finally, a heavenly voice excoriates Rabbi Shimon:

Have you emerged from the cave to destroy My world? Return to your cave.

They go back into the cave and learn for another year.

So they returned and dwelt there twelve months, saying, 'The punishment of the wicked in Gehennom is [limited to] twelve months.

It is hard to imagine that this will solve the problem - but it does. When he returns, wherever the son (Rav Elazar is still inciting away, but Rabbi Shimon is healing. Then a turning point:

On the eve of the Sabbath before sunset they saw an old man holding two bundles of myrtle and running at twilight. 'What are these for?' they asked him. 'They are in honor of the Sabbath,' he replied.'But one should suffice you'?- One is for Zachor-Remember and the other for Shamor-Observe. Said he to his son, 'See how precious are the commandments to Israel.' Thereafter their minds were at peace.


Unquestionably, Rabbi Shimon deeply loved all Jews. When he emerges from the cave for the 1st time, he can see nothing but his own approach; his love compels him to mandate that approach for all. Such an intense light will burn others. When he returned from the cave the second time, he had mastered the art of loving and respecting. Thus Rabbi Shimon develops the ability to find beauty in others' distinct, down to earth, and simpler approach to serving God.

By so doing, he achieves a corrective for all that we mourn in the Omer.

 

It was that light, a soft and bright one, which Rabbi Shimon was now able to share with the world. It is a light to bask in without without being burnt. With Rabbi Shimon's emergence the terribly sad saga of the omer is corrected. Remarkably, he - along with the rest of Rabbi Akiva's second set of students become the essential transmitters of our Torah.  

    

May that lesson of love and respect mark the essence of all of our relationships

  

Good Shabbos

Asher Brander    


FOOTNOTES:
1. Shulchan Aruch - Mishbetzos Zahav 493:1
2. The concept of playing with bow and arrow might be connected to this as well for the Talmud teaches that in the days of Rabbi Shimon B. Yochai no (rain)bow appeared for his greatness was enough to save the world from destruction. However the day he died, a rainbow appeared.     

     


 
   
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