This week we celebrated Lag Ba’Omer. In many ways, it is a minor holiday, important enough that we don’t say the penitentiary prayers, but not significant enough to merit any mention in either the Amidah prayer or Birkat Hamazon. Historically, Lag Ba’omer celebrates the resurgence of Torah after the Hadrianic oppression in the mid-second century. After the Bar Kochba rebellion, the Romans tried to exterminate the Jews and smother the light of Torah. They systematically killed anyone found teaching Torah. From this dark period we get the stories of the ten martyrs which we read on Yom Kippur. Knowing he was next on the Romans’ hit list, Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai fled and went into hiding. Thirteen years later, Rebbi Shimon emerged from his hiding place in a cave and began teaching Torah anew. And, teaching a new Torah. Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai (whose yahrzeit is Lag Ba’Omer) is the author of the Zohar, the magnum opus of Kabbalah and the primary text of our mystical tradition.
To the Kabalist, Lag Ba’Omer then is a celebration of those parts of Torah which can’t be seen on the outside. The Soul of the Torah. Like us, the Torah has a body and the Torah has a soul. The body of the Torah is the Pshat, the simple meaning of the text. The Ariza”l (the great sixteenth-century kabbalist) says the word ‘pshat’ actually comes from ופשט את בגדיו “he shall remove his clothing”. Pshat therefore means a layer which you can ‘take off’ and there will still be something essential remaining. Our bodies are the pshat of who we are, but it’s not all we are. Our essential selves are much deeper than our bodies. So too, the Pshat of the Torah is the physical stories and the practical instructions of what to do. But there’s so much more to it. Lag Ba’Omer celebrates the Neshama, the Soul of the Torah.
The Chatam Sofer, in his drash for Lag Ba’Omer brings the Zohar which says it takes 33 days for the Neshama to enter a baby’s body after his circumcision. He explains that since the Israelites circumcised themselves on the same day that they made the Korban Pesach when leaving Egypt, that means their souls only fully entered their bodies 33 days later. On Lag Ba’omer! Until then they may have learned Torah and done mitzvot but they did it with their bodies. Only from Lag Ba’Omer was their Neshama really in it.
Traditionally we celebrate Lag Ba’Omer with fire. Specifically, fire fueled by wood. Just as the Torah is compared to a tree, and wood (which comes from trees) doesn’t give off warmth and light until it’s ignited, so too the Torah doesn’t really shine unless we ignite it. Learning Torah is one of the three pillars upon which the world stands. It’s the fuel of Judaism. The Mishna (Avot 3:17) also says “with no Torah there’s no flour”. No fuel for the fire of our metabolism. However, Torah is just words until we read them, and even then often doesn’t inspire or illuminate. Just like a fire with too much wood and not enough air can’t burn, so too (Yoma 72b) the Torah can be either סם החיים, a life-giving medicine which leads us to an inspired and fulfilling life, or סם המוות a poisonous drug which smothers and extinguishes our souls. It takes more than wood to make fire, we need more than flour in our diet, and we need more than just rigid un-lit Torah to thrive as Jews. Ultimately, the Torah needs more from us than just our obedience in order to shine its light and illuminate our world. The wood must be lit.
Our Souls are called a spark of God. Just as each spark contains all the potential for a great fire, so too our souls are a microcosm of Hashem of whom it says “אש אוכלה הוא”, He is a consuming fire. So one thing that the Lag Ba’Omer fire teaches us is that we need to really invest our souls into the Torah in order for it to really shine. How do we do that? By finding new insights into the Torah. Bring your talents, your creativity and your passion into the discussion. God wants to hear what the Torah means to you.
Rebbi Akiva was the greatest Torah sage there ever was. Even Moshe himself was baffled when shown a vision of Rebbi Akiva’s lessons (Menachot 29b). All of the Oral Torah we have today comes to us through Rebbi Akiva and his students. Yet the sages tell us that during the first 32 days of the Omer 24,000 of Rebbi Akiva’s students died. The reason given for their death is that they did not treat one another with honor. They competed in Torah, each trying to advance their own understanding above their companions. While rigorous intellectual scrutiny is certainly called for in Torah study, a mutually exclusive relationship between opinions only happens when you look at Torah on the surface – pshat level. In Halacha, practical decisions need to be made, but when we get to the soul of the Torah, there’s room for lots of opinions, and the more points of view that can be shared, the clearer The Great Mystery becomes.
Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai was Rebbi Akiva’s devoted disciple, but after spending 13 years in a cave with only his son, he taught differently when he emerged. By Rebbi Shimon, it wasn’t the mass public teachings of the law by the Sanhedrin as in the times of Rebbi Akiva and before. It was always a small, informal group of dedicated students who called themselves the חברייא קדישא The Holy Fellowship. At his passing (on Lag Ba’Omer!) recorded in the Zohar as the Idra Zuta, ‘the Small Gathering’, Rebbi Shimon told his students that the Torah he had shared with them would not endure because of their great scholarship but only if they loved each other very much. They must not only care about the Torah they learned but also the people they learned it with. Like logs on a fire, they needed to remain close to one another in order to keep the flame of Torah going.
Now that flame has been passed down to us. May we too come together as a חברייא קדישא, a holy fellowship, to learn Torah joyously, ignite it with the spark of our souls and make real emotional investment in our community and in one another. May we treat each other with the honor that comes from genuine love, and may our Torah shine bright, warming and illuminating our families, our community and the world around us. Amen
Rabbi Shlomo Schachter
Lag B’Omer 5782