October 13, 2019

Torah portion: Judging the entire person

The Omer period is a time of tremendous din (judgment) that marks the loss of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students. How can we dance on Lag b’Omer, then, right in the middle of this dark season? 

The festival centers around our celebration of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Who is he that we celebrate his life more than almost any other religious figure?

To understand, let’s think about love, starting with this powerful verse in Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs): “abundant waters cannot put out the love” — between God and His people. 

When there is love, no storm, no hail, no earthquake can break our ability to stand. Love is a funny thing. It lends us a spirit that is so powerful.

When I was in high school — YULA — my rosh yeshiva was Rav Sholom Tendler. He told the students the following anecdote: He was dating his soon-to-be bride and asked his rebbe in the Mirrer Yeshiva of Brooklyn for dating advice. His rebbe asked him, “When are you seeing her next?” Rav Sholom answered, “She’s taking a train in from Baltimore in the next few days.” 

The rebbe told Rav Sholom, “Don’t pick her up from the train station in New York.” Rav Sholom answered, “But it’s a snowstorm, why wouldn’t I pick her up?” His rabbi answered, “That’s exactly the point. Find out where the train stops halfway in between, and be there with flowers.” 

Why? What’s the message? To show somebody you care you have to be willing to do something a little crazy. Staying up all night studying Torah on Shavuot, for example, may not be the perfect strategy for making the most of every minute of learning, but it is a wild and crazy way to show God how abundant all of our love is.

Lag b’Omer celebrates the life of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, Rashbi as he is called. Rashbi once said, “I can excuse every Jew from (Divine) judgment” (Eruvin 65). How is he able to get all of us off the hook? Because Rashbi had the ability to see the amazing spark that is in each of us. He was able to understand our flaws as part of a much bigger picture. 

This is like the Gerrer Rebbe’s interpretation of the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot: We should judge the entire person. Meaning, when we can look at a holistic view of each other, we can get past the tiny quirks.

The Mishnah in Sanhedrin states, “Every Jew has a portion in the world to come.” Rav Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin once said on this Mishnah that the emphasis here is on “Kol Yisrael” — there is an entity called “all of Israel,” when we are a group, when we are connected to one another, then we have a share in the world to come. When we can learn to love, then all the waters in the world cannot wash us away.

Why do we celebrate Lag b’Omer? Numerous attempts have been made to explain where our tradition regarding this day comes from. The Talmud in Yevamos 62, which talks about the death of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students, actually makes no mention of Lag b’Omer. According to the early commentator, the Meiri, Lag b’Omer is the day that the students stopped dying. The problem with that approach is that it doesn’t explain why we would celebrate; mourning should begin then? 

An alternative and famous suggestion, stated notably by Rabbi Chaim Vital, is that Lag b’Omer is the day Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai died. This classic explanation is not mentioned in the earlier commentaries and therefore needs further exploration.

Perhaps we can synthesize the classic views and suggest a third reason for our Lag b’Omer celebrations. After losing 24,000 students, Rabbi Akiva could have given up and said, “I can’t bear to teach any longer.” Instead he realized that now his charge was greater than ever: I must continue to teach. 

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was hunted down by the Roman government. While hiding in a cave with his son, he could have said, “What purpose is there left of my studies?” Instead, he began an intense program of Torah study that would be unparalleled in the future of Judaism.

Lag b’Omer, then, is the festive story of the indomitable Jewish soul. It’s the realization that every individual is an infinite world waiting to be discovered. And when those individual worlds learn how to love each other — nothing can stand in their way.

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn is rav and dean of Yeshivat Yavneh and the author of “Judaism Alive” (Gefen Publishing, 2015).