Lag BaOmer, the thirty-third day of the Omer Count, is the anniversary of the passing of the great sage, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (circa 165 ce).
Although Rabbi Shimon was one of the greatest expounders of the “revealed” part of Torah—the vast body of Halachah that legislates the civil, marital and ritual laws of Jewish life 1 —he is most deeply identified with its “hidden” or mystical element. He is the author of the Zohar, the most basic Kabbalistic work, and the initiator of a new era in the history of Torah’s transmission through the generations.
Up until Rabbi Shimon’s time, the mystical soul of Torah—which charts the sublime expanses of the divine reality, the processes of creation, G-d’s relationship to our existence and the inner recesses of the human soul—was transmitted in private to only a very few individuals in each generation and only in the form of terse, cryptic maxims. Rabbi Shimon was the first to expound upon these most intimate secrets of the divine wisdom, and he set in motion the process by which, in the generations that followed, they gained a widening audience and an increasingly detailed and explicit elucidation.
This process was accelerated by Rabbi Isaac Luria 2 who proclaimed that “in these times, we are allowed and duty-bound to reveal this wisdom,” and more recently, by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov 3 and his disciples.
The Chassidic masters have explained that the growing popularity and accessibility of the inner dimensions of Torah reflect history’s progression toward the day when, with the advent of the Messianic era, “The earth shall be filled with the knowledge of G-d, as the waters cover the sea.” 4
The Zohar itself expresses this truth when it declares, “With this book shall Israel be mercifully redeemed.” 5
Before his passing, Rabbi Shimon instructed his disciples to observe his yahrzeit as a day of joy and festivity, as it marks the culminating point of all he achieved in the course of his physical life. Thus we celebrate Lag BaOmer as Rabbi Shimon’s personal festival, as well as the day that made the mystical soul of Torah accessible to each and every one of us.
On Lag BaOmer it is customary to take the children to parks and fields to play with bows and arrows. One of the explanations given for this custom is that we are told that in the course of Rabbi Shimon’s lifetime, no rainbow appeared in the sky. The rainbow is a sign of human failing: as related in the ninth chapter of Genesis, G-d promised that whenever mankind shall be as undeserving as it was in the generation of the Flood, the rainbow will remind Him of His vow to never again destroy His world. But as long as Rabbi Shimon was alive, his merit alone was enough to ensure that G-d would not regret His creation. Hence the connection of the bow (keshet 6) to Lag BaOmer. 7 According to this, however, the bow is a negative symbol, reflecting the decrease in merit that the world experienced upon Rabbi Shimon’s passing. There is, however, a positive aspect to the phenomenon of the bow as well, for the bow also serves as an indicator and catalyst for the ultimate Redemption.
In the words of the Zohar: “Do not anticipate the coming of Moshiach until you see the shining colors of the rainbow.” 8
The Sword and the Bow
The first weapons devised by man were designed for hand-to-hand combat. But a person’s enemy or prey is not always an arm’s-length away, or even within sight; soon the warrior and hunter were inventing an array of weapons capable of reaching targets which are a great distance away, or which lie hidden and protected behind barriers of every sort.
Chief among them was the bow and arrow. The inventor of this device conceived how the tension in an arched bough of wood could be exploited to propel a missile over great distances. To do so, he first had to grasp the paradox that the deadly arrow must be pulled back toward one’s own heart in order to strike the heart of the enemy; and that the more it is drawn toward oneself, the more distant a foe it can reach. Indeed, virtually all long-range weapons (including the rocket) operate on this principle: they cause an action by the means of an opposite action; they impel up and away by means of a force that is exerted down and back toward the launch-point.
Therein lies the deeper significance of the bow and its connection to Lag BaOmer.
The “revealed” part of Torah is like a close-range weapon in that it aids us in meeting the obvious challenges of life. It teaches us to distinguish between good and evil, between the holy and the profane. Do not kill or steal, it tells us; feed the hungry, hallow your relationship and family life with the sanctity of marriage, remember the Shabbat day, eat only kosher foods—for thus you will preserve the order that G-d instituted in His world and develop it in accordance with the purpose for which He created it.
But not everything is as up front as the explicit do’s and don’ts of the Torah. What about the ambiguities of intent and motive, love and awe, ego and commitment? What about the subtleties of comprehending the divine essence of reality and vanquishing the cosmic heterogeneity that is the source of all evil? How are we to approach these challenges, so distant from our sensory reach and so elusive of our mind’s perception?
This is where the mystical dimension of Torah comes in. Delve into yourself, it explains, retreat to your own essence, to the very core of your soul. There you will uncover the selfless heart of the self, the “spark of G-dliness” within you that is one with its Creator and His creation. There you will gain the insight and foresight to deal with the most distant and obscure adversary; from there you will catapult your redeeming influence to the most forsaken corner of G-d’s world.
On Lag BaOmer, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai gave us the bow.
Based on the Rebbe’s talks, Nissan 29 and Lag BaOmer, 5711 (May 5 and 24, 1951) 9
Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber.
- Indeed, almost every one of the Talmud’s 523 chapters contains at least one law cited in the name of Rabbi Shimon (see Likkutei Sichot, vol. XII, p. 194). ↩
- The “Holy Ari,” 1534-1572. ↩
- Founder of the Chassidic movement, 1698-1760. ↩
- Isaiah 11:9. ↩
- Zohar, part III, 124b. ↩
- In Hebrew, the word refers to all bows and arches, including the rainbow and the archer’s bow. ↩
- Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 9:2; Benei Yissachar, Maamarei Chodesh Iyar, 3:4. ↩
- Zohar, part I, 72b; Tikkunei Zohar, Tikkun 18. ↩
- Torat Menachem—Hitvaaduyot 5711, vol. II, pp. 50-58, 77-81. ↩