Ask the average yeshiva student what Sefirat HaOmer is all about. What do you think you will hear in reply? Typically, they will tell you that Sefirat HaOmer means “you can’t...” “You can’t shave. You can’t get a haircut. You can’t listen to live music. You can’t attend a wedding.” They also know that you have to make the count every night or you might be in trouble and might not be allowed to recite the bracha anymore. Is this what Sefirat HaOmer is all about? Why do we have all of these mourning rituals? Wasn’t the receiving of the Torah on Shavuot an exciting, happy event that we were to look forward to with anticipation, not sadness?
Unfortunately, in the times of Rabbi Akiva, we believe that approximately 24,000 of his students coincidentally died during this same time period. Only five of his students reportedly survived. They were R’ Meir, R’ Yehuda, R’ Yosi, R’ Shimon Bar Yochai and R’ Elazar Ben Shamua. Some say the 24,000 students died because they were inconsiderate and self-centered. Other explanations have it that they were part of the Bar Kochba rebellion, supported by R’ Akiva, and that they were massacred by the Romans because they openly taught Torah. R’ Telushkin is of the opinion that they died over a period of time because they did not coordinate their resistance to the Romans. In any event, the loss of almost the entire rabbinic population was catastrophic and threatened the survival of the oral Torah. To remember this sad event, we have developed “light” mourning rituals during this time period.
On Lag B’Omer we do not observe mourning rituals because R’ Akiva’s students stopped dying that day. Also, it is the yahrzeit of R’ Shimon Bar Yochai who, according to legend, transmitted the secrets of the Kabbalah as he lay dying. This was later codified by his students into the Zohar.
The Gemara in Shabbos (33b) recounts the famous story of R’ Shimon Bar Yochai. He made cynical remarks about the Roman Empire that eventually got back to the governor. “They only built their fine roads to have better access to their prostitutes,” he said. “They only built the bridges and infrastructure so that they could charge tolls and enrich themselves.” As a result of making these remarks, he and his son were sentenced to death and had to hide in a cave, buried up to their necks in sand for a 12-year period of exile to avoid capture.
When the Roman emperor finally died, the Prophet Elijah informed him that it was safe to come out again. However, R’ Shimon Bar Yochai apparently still had not learned his lesson. When he and his son exited the cave, he saw the common folk engaged in their day-to-day activities and made cynical remarks about them as well. He cast an evil eye on them, causing destruction. A heavenly voice rang out and ordered them to return to their cave for another 12 months of reflection. Thereafter, whenever R’ Shimon’s son began to make a disapproving remark, R’ Shimon would offer healing words of consolation and explanation. He had learned his lesson the hard way, saying, “Let me go forth and make the world a better place.”
As we celebrate Lag B’Omer and take a break from the period of mourning, may we be able to remember the essence of this time period and learn the proper lesson. Let us be careful to treat one another with respect and consideration. Let us try harder to be less cynical and more benign in interpreting the words and actions of our neighbors. Finally, just as with R’ Shimon bar Yochai, may Hashem grant us the insight and ability to go forth and make this world a better place.
Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg is a forensic, clinical psychologist and a member of the American Psychology-Law Society. He is acting president of the Chai Riders Motorcycle Club of NY/NJ. He is the coordinator of bikur cholim/chesed at Congregation Torah Ohr in Boca Raton, Florida. He can be reached at [email protected]