The usual festivities of Lag BaOmer will not take place this year. There will be no large outings, bonfires, parades or mass trips to Meron. Unfortunately, it is still most prudent not to gather in large groups, which vastly changes this year’s celebration of Lag BaOmer.
On Lag BaOmer, we commemorate two historically meaningful events. We celebrate the life of the great sage and mystic Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, author of the Zohar on the anniversary of his passing. This day also marks the cessation of deaths due to a plague that claimed the lives of 24,000 disciples of the great sage Rabbi Akiva.
The Talmud describes that the reason for this plague was that Rabbi Akiva’s students did not behave with proper respect for one another. This might seem like an extraordinarily harsh punishment, but it is taught that God is exacting with the righteous to a hairsbreadth. If one knows better they are expected to do better. The Torah is supposed to perfect man not only in his relationship with God, but firstly to teach man the proper way to coexist with others. Ideally, the more one learns the better one should treat his fellow man. Sadly, this was not the case with Rabbi Akiva’s disciples and our people suffered a great loss.
Rabbi Akiva then went on to mentor five exemplary students, one of whom was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
There is a famous story about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai who was forced to flee and hide for 12 years with his son in a cave after speaking disparagingly of the Roman institutions. They spent 12 years secluded in Torah study and prayer. When they heard that the Roman decree had been rescinded, Rabbi Shimon and his son left the cave, but as profoundly changed individuals. When they saw people everywhere occupied with mundane activities, they were outraged proclaiming, “They forsake eternal life and engage in temporal life!” Due to their fervor, whatever they gazed upon was immediately consumed by fire. Rabbi Shimon and his son were unable to reconcile themselves to the realities of everyday life so a heavenly voice commanded them to return to their cave for an additional 12 months.
When they left the cave the second time, it was just before the Sabbath. They came across an old man running with two twigs of myrtle branches. Rabbi Shimon inquired what the myrtle twigs were for and the old man said to honor the Sabbath. Rabbi Shimon asked of the man, “But why do you need two?” “One is for Zachor [‘Remember the Sabbath’] and the other is for Shamor [‘Keep the Sabbath holy’]”, replied the man. Rabbi Shimon turned to his son, “See how precious the mitzvot (commandments) are to the people of Israel!” And their minds were put at ease.
It might seem perplexing that such an answer would pacify Rabbi Shmon Bar Yochai, until examining the significance of “Shamor” and “Zachor.”
Shamor, to keep the Sabbath holy, corresponds to the intrinsic sanctity of Shabbat when we abstain and transcend from mundane activities elevating ourselves to a higher realm of holiness on that day. Zachor, to remember the Sabbath, is bringing the energy of the Sabbath holiness into the other days of the week.
It seems that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was then finally able to understand that he was akin to “Shamor” after many years of abstaining from mundane activity and devoting himself fully to holiness, but that he was remiss in the “Zachor,” which the old man represented in his ability to elevate the mundane. It took that moment for him to appreciate the value of utilizing all the God given gifts of the mundane as equally important work in this world. It wasn’t until then that he truly valued and respected the “óther” in the way a Torah scholar should.
Truly respecting the different ways people observe and sanctify life has always been our Achilles heel. The key point of Lag BaOmer in recalling the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students and celebrating the life of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai must be to respect one another. The fact that we too have been forced into isolation in this time of year gives us occasion to question our own attitude and judgement of others. If we can finally understand and appreciate the value of others maybe we won’t be forced back into our caves a second time.