There was once a man who had twenty-four thousand disciples.
He taught them to love, but their love was too absolute, too
true, to be loving. They died, and their death spawned a period
of mourning that darkens our calendar to this very day.
This man had one disciple who devoted his entire lifeliterally his every
minuteto the pursuit of truth. Yet his truth was true enough to love.
He, too, passed from the world, and the anniversary of his passing is celebrated
as a day of joy and festivity to this very day.
This, in a word, is the story of Lag BOmerthe story of Rabbi Akiva
(d. circa 134 ce) and his greatest disciple, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
A Celebrated Death
The seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot are a period of anticipation,
preparation and self-refinement. With our daily counting of the omer,
we retrace our ancestors journey from the Exodus to Mount Sinai, from
their first glimpse of the face of G-d to their election as G-ds chosen
people and their receiving of the Torah.
It is also a time of sadness. No marriages are conducted during this period;
like mourners, we dont cut our hair or enjoy the sound of music. It was
in this period that Rabbi Akivas 24,000 disciples died in a plague because
they did not conduct themselves with respect for each other.
One day stands out as an isle of joy in these despondent weeks: Lag BOmer,
the 33rd day of the omer count. The laws and customs proscribing joy
during the omer period are suspended, children are taken out on outings, and the day is marked as a
festive and joyous occasion.
There are two reasons for this joy. One is that the plague that raged among
Rabbi Akivas disciples ceased on this day. A second reason is that it is the anniversary
of the passing of Rabbi Akivas greatest disciple, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
Before his death (many years later, without connection to the plague), Rabbi
Shimon referred to the day of his passing as the day of my happiness,
and instructed that it be observed each year as a day of joyous celebration.
Love and Truth
Why is the passing of Rabbi Akivas other disciples mourned as a national
tragedy, while the passing of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is remembered with celebration
and joy? Indeed, the very same day that celebrates the end of the dying of Rabbi
Akivas disciples, celebrates the death of his greatest disciple! To understand
the significance of these two Lag BOmer events, we must first examine
the root of the disrespect that caused the plague amongst Rabbi
Rabbi Akiva taught that Love your fellow as yourself is a cardinal principle in
Torah; indeed, this is
the most famous of his teachings. One would therefore expect that Rabbi Akivas
disciples would be the foremost exemplars of this principle. How was it that
they, of all people, were deficient in this area?
But their very diligence in fulfilling the precept Love your fellow as
yourself was their undoing. Our sages have said that Just as every
persons face differs from the faces of his fellows, so, too, every persons
mind differs from the minds of his fellows. When the twenty-four thousand disciples of Rabbi Akiva studied
their masters teachings, the result was twenty-four thousand nuances of
understanding, as the same concepts were assimilated by twenty-four thousand
mindseach unique and distinct from its 23,999 fellows. Had Rabbi Akivas
students loved each other less, this would have been a matter of minor concern;
but because each disciple loved his fellows as he loved himself, he felt compelled
to correct their erroneous thinking and enlighten them as to the
true meaning of their masters words. For the same reason, they found themselves
incapable of expressing a hypocritical respect for each others
views when they sincerely felt that the others understanding was lacking,
even in the slightest degree.
The greater a person is, the higher are the standards by which he is judged;
in the words of our sages, With the righteous, G-d is exacting to a hairsbreadth.
Thus, what for people of our caliber would be considered a minor failing had
such a devastating effect upon the disciples of Rabbi Akiva.
The Thirteenth Year
But there was one disciple of Rabbi Akiva who learned to overcome the pitfalls
of uncompromising love and uncompromising truth, as exemplified by the following
incident in the life of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai:
When the Roman rulers of the Holy Land placed a price on the heads of Rabbi
Shimon and his son Rabbi Elazar, they hid in a cave for twelve years. During
this time, they spent every minute of their day studying Torah. When they emerged
from the cave, they were shocked to discover people plowing and sowing: How
could people set aside the eternal life that is Torah and occupy their days
with the transitory life of the material? So intense was their wrath at such
folly that whatever met with their burning glance went up in flames. Proclaimed
a voice from heaven: Have you come out to destroy My world? Return to
your cave! Rabbi Shimons thirteenth year of study, while increasing
his knowledge and appreciation of the eternal truth of Torah, also taught him
the value of endeavors other than his own. Now, wherever he went, his look would
heal rather than destroy.
The 4,000-year history of Jewish learning has known many great and diligent
students of Torah; yet none epitomized the absolute devotion to the pursuit
of the divine truth to the extent exemplified by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Throughout
the writings of our sages, his example is cited as the ultimate case of one
whose study of Torah is his sole vocation.
Certainly, Rabbi Shimons commitment to truth was no less absolute than
that of Rabbi Akivas other disciples. Yet his truth was true enough to
love. In his thirteenth year in the cave, he attained a dimension of the divine
truth that tolerates, indeed embraces, the many and diverse avenues of connection
that G-d has provided to a humanity whose minds, characters and temperaments
are as diverse as their number. In his thirteenth year in the cave, Rabbi Shimon
attained a level of truth in which he could utterly devote himself to the eternal
life that is Torah and advocate such devotion for everyone else,
and at the same time appreciate and respect the path of those who serve G-d
via the temporal life of material endeavors.
So the very same day that celebrates the end of the plague amongst Rabbi Akivas
disciples celebrates the passing of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. The Chassidic masters
explain that the passing of a righteous person marks the point at which all
his deeds, teachings and works attain the pinnacle of fulfillment and
realization and the point of their most powerful influence upon our lives.
And the deeds, teaching and works of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai
are the ultimate rectification of Rabbi Akivas disciples tragic
failure to achieve the proper synthesis of love and truth that would make their
love true and their truth loving.
A Dual Lesson
As noted above, it was only among men of the caliber of Rabbi Akivas
disciples that such a failing could bode such devastating results. But our sages
chose to record this story for posterity and fix it in our lives by a series
of laws that govern our behavior in the weeks between Passover and Shavuot each
year. Obviously, we, too, have something to learn from what happened to Rabbi
The lesson is twofold: we must learn from their virtues as well as from their
mistakes. We must learn to care enough for our fellow man not to indulge his
errors and accommodate his failings. This might be the easiest and most socially
comfortable way to behave, but, rather than tolerance, it bespeaks
an indifference toward his welfare. On the other hand, we must never allow our
commitment to his betterment to lessen in the slightest our respect and esteem
toward him, no matter how misguided and unresponsive he might be.
If this seems paradoxical, it is. But in regard to regarding ourselves, it
is a paradox with which we are quite comfortableevery psychologically
healthy person loves himself unconditionally and, at the same time, incessantly
strives to improve himself. This is the paradox that we must also cultivate
in our relationship with others: on the one hand, we must never compromise our
efforts to improve our fellow man out of respect for his views and feelings;
on the other hand, we must never allow these efforts to compromise our love
and respect for him. For to succumb to either compromise is to fail to love
him as we love ourselvesa principle which Rabbi Akiva considered fundamental
to G-ds blueprint for life and of which Hillel said: This is the
entire Torah; the rest is commentary.
Based on the Rebbes talks on Lag BOmer 5740 (1980) and 5744
(1984), and on other occasions
. Talmud, Yevamot 62b; Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Orach
. In certain communities, the mourning period is
observed only until Lag BOmer; in others, it is observed both before
and after it. See Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Orach Chaim 493:5-7.
. Meiri on Talmud, ibid.; Shulchan Aruch, ibid.
. Zohar, part III, 296b; Pri Etz Chaim, Shaar Sefirat
HaOmer, ch. 7.
. Torat Kohanim on verse.
. Midrash Tanchuma, Pinchas 10.
. Talmud, Yevamot 121a.
. Torato unmato. Ibid., Shabbat
. Tanya, Iggeret HaKodesh, ch. 27. Thus, while
every death is a negative and sorrowful event, which the Torah instructs to
honor with the appropriate mourning practices, the yahrtzeit (anniversary
of the passing) of a righteous person is traditionally celebrated as a joyous
. Ibid., Shabbat 31a.
. Likkutei Sichot, XXII, pp. 138-142; ibid., vol.
XXXII, pp. 149-152; et al