Parshas Emor (5773)
[We are commanded by the Torah to count forty nine days starting from the second day of Passover. On the fiftieth day we celebrate the festival of Shavuos, commemorating the Giving of the Torah. This 50-day period is called "Counting the Omer." The Omer was a barley offering which was brought in the Temple on the day we start counting, the second day of Passover. Lag Ba'Omer is the thirty-third day of counting the Omer. The word Lag means 33 because it is comprised of the Hebrew letters lamid and gimmel, corresponding to the numerical values of "30" and "3."
According to official Israeli reports, almost half a million people will have visited the tiny northern village of Meron in the days leading up to the holiday of Lag Ba’Omer; and more than 250,000 will be there on Lag Ba’Omer itself (this coming Saturday evening April 27th and Sunday April 28th). That’s almost 10% of Israel’s entire population!
They are making this mass pilgrimage every year on Lag Ba’Omer in order to be at the tomb of the holy Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (known by his acronym Rashb”i), a first-century Rabbi, Kabbalist, and leader of the Jewish people, who contributed greatly to the Mishnah, is often quoted in the Talmud, and who authored the Kabbalistic Sefer HaZohar.
Lag Ba’Omer is the day of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s yahrtzeit (otherwise known as his Yoma D’Hillula, the anniversary of his death) and this celebration was a specific request of his to his students. On that holy day, Rashb”i revealed to his students many great mystical secrets of the Kabbalah, and this was a cause of great joy for the Jewish people. Many bonfires are lit (in Meron and all across the country) representing the spiritual fire that Rashb”i brought into the world, and there is much singing and dancing throughout the night and well into the morning hours.
It is also a custom at the Meron celebrations, dating from the time of the great Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (known by his acronym Ariza”l), that three-year-old boys are given their first haircuts (known in Yiddish as an upsherin), while their parents distribute wine and sweets.
One of the great teachings of Kabbalah, which was revealed to us by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, is the idea that G-d’s love for every Jew is unconditional, that even when a Jew stumbles spiritually, G-d is always at his side, ready to extend a hand and to help him out of his predicament. There is a hidden spark of holiness in every Jewish soul that can never be extinguished, no matter how low he has sunk. This idea has saved many a soul from despair and hopelessness.
The hundreds of thousands of Jews who come to Meron each year on Lag Ba’Omer represent the entire spectrum of Jewish custom and observance in the Holy Land. All Jews, it seems, feel drawn to the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai – no matter what their spiritual background may be - for he revealed the hidden spark of holiness in every Jewish soul that can never be extinguished. .
The Midrash (in Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:3) relates a beautiful story involving Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai:
In the city of Sidon, there was a couple who was married for ten years but could not have children. They came before Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai to request that he arrange their divorce. (It was common custom in earlier times for a childless couple to agree to divorce in order that each one could attempt to fulfill the mitzvah of procreating with someone else.) Rabbi Shimon told them: “By your lives, just as your wedding was celebrated with food and drink, so too should you part from one another with food and drink.” The couple obeyed the rabbi’s instructions and made a huge feast. What did the wife do at this feast? She got her husband drunk. In his inebriated state, he told his wife, “My daughter, pick any good object that you see in the house and take it with you when you leave to your father’s house!” What did the woman do? When her husband was sleeping, she instructed her servants, “Lift up my husband in his bed and bring him to my father’s house!” In the middle of the night, the husband awoke, the effects of the wine having worn off. “My daughter,” he asked his wife, “where am I?” She replied, “In my father’s house”. “But why?” he asked. “Did you not tell me last night that I could choose any good object in the house and take it with me to my father’s house? I have nothing better in this world than you!” The couple returned to Rabbi Shimon, who prayed for them. A year later they were blessed with a child. This teaches us that just as G-d grants children to the barren, so too do the righteous grant children to the barren through their prayers.
Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz ZT”L explains that Rabbi Shimon’s intent in asking them to make a “divorce party” was that through celebrating together the couple would hopefully awaken the feelings which they had felt for each other on the day they married. If they would succeed, then their re-awakened love for one another would not allow them to part, even though they were childless. They succeeded at this, and as a result, made themselves worthy of blessing, and they were granted a child.
This story about a childless couple is really a metaphor for our relationship with G-d. Our tradition teaches that the Jewish people were “married” to G-d at Mount Sinai on the holiday of Shavuos, with the mountain suspended above our heads serving as a Chuppah (wedding canopy) and the Ten Commandments as our wedding ring.
Unfortunately, throughout the long years of our exile, we have lost our way and become distant from our Beloved, with our relationship no longer “bearing fruit”. Sometimes, in our great despair and helplessness, we have even thought that maybe this relationship is over, G-d forbid.
In times like these, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught us to think back to our wedding day on Shavuos, and to remind ourselves how we felt at that time, in the hope that we can re-awaken those feelings of unconditional love and closeness that we and G-d once felt towards each other. In this way, we can repair our relationship with G-d and bring true joy and blessing into our lives.