During the period known as Sefirat Ha-Omer (the Counting of the Omer), Jewish communities generally observe customs related to mourning. There are different opinions as to which exact days during the Omer period are to be observed as days of mourning, but all agree that Lag BaOmer is an exception – a day when mournful customs are set aside, and some communities cease mourning altogether after Lag Ba-Omer.
What is the meaning of this custom of mourning, and what is its relevance to our lives? And what is it about Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai (whose yahrzeit falls on Lag Ba-Omer) that brings us so much joy that we cease our mourning?
Let us attempt to address briefly the connection between war, mourning and mysticism.
Some seventy years after the destruction of the Second Temple, the Bar Kokhba Revolt took place. For about three years, the rebels fought against the Roman legions, with some impressive achievements. Rabbi Akiva was the spiritual leader of the rebellion. He believed that Bar Kokhba would be the Mashiah. As the Rambam describes it:
Rabbi Akiva was one of the greatest Sages of the Mishna. He was the right-hand man of Ben Koziba, the king, and he said of him that he was the king Mashiah. He and all the sages of that generation believed that he (Bar Kokhba) was the king Mashiah – until, for (their many) sins, he was killed. Since he was killed, they realized that he had not been (Mashiah).” (Rambam, Laws of Kings, chapter 11)
Rambam explains the tragic mistake. Mashiah is not a magical, miraculous figure, and to the view of Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues, there really existed the possibility that Bar Kokhba would become Mashiah. Sometimes an opportunity for redemption opens up, and we have the power to make that potential grow and blossom into full redemption. There existed the possibility that the exile, after the destruction of the Second Temple, would last only seventy years – as was the case after the first destruction. But because of our sins it continued, and the rebellion ended in defeat.
The Gemara indicates the problem, the reason for which we mourn to this day:
“Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students…
They all died, within a short time, because they did not treat each other with the proper respect. And the world became desolate, until Rabbi Akiva came to the Sages of the south and he taught them: Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua. And it was they who restored the pillars of Torah at that time.
And we learn: “All (Rabbi Akiva’s original students) died between Pesach and Shavuot…” (Yevamot 62b)
It is interesting that the destruction – and subsequent mourning for generations – arose here not because of the wicked people of the generation, but rather because of the Torah scholars. Their Torah study did not correct the fundamental defect that brought about the destruction of the Temple – causeless hatred. How is it that the Torah that they learned did not succeed in influencing their personalities and leading them to maintain proper relationships with one another? Does involvement in Torah not purify and heal one’s personality?
According to the kabbalists, the Torah did not influence them because it was not studied in depth. Study of the “revealed” Torah alone gives one only a partial grasp of it, and this can sometimes lead one to a superficial understanding and to conflict, rather than wholeness and repair. Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai was one of the five disciples that Rabbi Akiva taught after the catastrophe. The Torah and Kabbalah that he taught embody the wholeness of Torah study, down to the deepest levels of reality and of man’s soul. Hence, Torah study in the footsteps of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai – study of the profound, “inner” aspects of Torah – should influence a person inwardly and direct him towards repairing all aspects of reality.
During Sefirat Ha-Omer we mourn. We mourn the opportunity for redemption that was lost. On Lag Ba-Omer we lift our heads and look towards hope, seeking Torah that is whole and wholesome; Torah that influences and redeems.
In our times, with buds of redemption once again appearing, let us remember the lessons of earlier times. May we merit to see the full redemption in all its light and splendor.