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Lag B'Omer is one of Judaism's days of festive celebration. One of the reasons we celebrate it is that on this day, a plague that killed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva's students ended.
What was the reason for that plague? Because, our Sages explain, Rabbi Akiva's students did not show respect for one another.
That explanation has raised many questions. Rabbi Akiva placed great emphasis on sharing and unity. It was he who taught: "'Love your fellowman as yourself' is a great general principle in the Torah." How then could his students depart from their master's path and fail to show one another respect?
Chasidic thought explains that because every person is unique in his nature and thought processes, he has a unique path in the service of G-d. Similarly, each of Rabbi Akiva's disciples had his own approach. Because they were highly developed individuals, each had internalized his particular approach to the point that it dominated his personality.
Operating from within his own perspective, each considered any approach different from his own as incomplete and inadequate. Being men of integrity, they no doubt spoke their minds plainly. And since all were intensely involved in their own paths of service, none would change. The tension between them escalated, as the deep commitment every student felt to his own particular approach prevented him from showing respect for those who followed a different path.
What was wrong with the students' perspective? Nothing and everything.
Nothing, because every one of the paths proposed by the students could have been correct.
And everything, because their tunnel-vision prevented them from seeing any version of the truth other than their own.
No matter how deeply we are involved in our own service to G-d, we must remain broad-minded enough to appreciate that someone else may have a different approach. Other paths may appear inadequate, but this perception may stem from our own limitations.
Furthermore, even if someone is indeed underdeveloped, his defi-ciencies need not prevent us from looking upon him in a favorable light. For every individual possesses a potential for growth. We should concentrate on helping others realize that potential, rather than merely accentuating their need to do so.
Rabbi Akiva's own life serves as an example of how any person can reach greatness regardless of his background. Rabbi Akiva descended from a family of converts, and did not begin to study until the age of 40. Nevertheless, he attained such heights of scholarship that our entire knowledge of the Oral Law rests on his teachings.
We needn't wait for miracles to inspire us. Rabbi Akiva was motivated to begin studying Torah by a simple physical observation. Noticing how a rock had been worn away by the constancy of dripping water - though each drop had no apparent effect - he understood that Torah (which is likened to water) could refine even those aspects of his nature that were as rough as stone.
From Keeping in Touch by Rabbi E. Touger, published by Sichos in English
The Torah portion of Emor opens with a warning to the kohanim (priests) not to become defiled through contact with a dead body: "Say to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them, There shall be none defiled for the dead among his people." The famous commentator Rashi explains that the Torah repeats the word "say" - "to warn the adults with regard to the children."
This is not the only instance in which adults are commanded to ensure that children observe certain mitzvot (commandments). In the entire Torah we find three such cases: the prohibition against eating insects, the prohibition against eating or drinking blood, and the prohibition against kohanim becoming ritually impure through contact with a corpse.
Why these three specific mitzvot? In each of these instances, an educator might despair of ever getting the point across to his pupil. However, the Torah encourages us to never give up hope, and assures us that we have the power to succeed.
In fact, each of these mitzvot brings out a different lesson. Eating insects is described as "a revolting practice." Ingesting blood is something that was a common practice in the ancient world. The prohibition against defilement with the dead is a super-rational mitzva that has no basis in logic.
From this we learn three fundamental principles regarding education:
- If a Jew should ever find himself in degrading circumstances, surrounded by people who behave improperly, he mustn't think that there is nothing he can do. Even when confronted by a person who "eats insects," he can still exert a positive influence through proper education.
- The view that education doesn't work once a person has become used to acting in a negative way is unfounded and false. The Torah teaches that change and personal growth are always possible, even in so extreme a case as educating people not to ingest blood.
- Another misperception is that education only applies to the acquisition of factual information, rather than matters of faith. If a person claims to be a non-believer, how can he be taught to believe? However, by singling out the prohibition against defilement, a commandment that is purely super-rational, the Torah emphasizes that education is effective in this area as well. In his heart, every Jew is a believer; a proper Jewish education merely uncovers that which is concealed.
When the Torah commands us to do something, it doesn't mean that compliance is merely possible. Rather, the commandment itself - that G-d has commanded it - imbues us with the power to fulfill the mitzva. G-d does not ask us to do things that are beyond our capability; when He requires something from us, He makes sure that we can do it.
Adapted from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
A Day of Celebration
by Yehudis Cohen
My first participation at one of the massive parades organized by Chabad-Lubavitch in honor of Lag B'Omer (the 33rd day of the Omer period between Passover and Shavuot) was in 1978. My main memories are of spending hours and hours on the evening and morning before the parade with my fellow students from Beth Rivkah High School in a huge, cavernous room. We were packing sandwiches, snacks and drinks for the thousands of children from throughout the New York Metro area who would be attending the parade and festivities in front of World Lubavitch Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn.
The parade was replete with marching bands, floats, clowns, acrobats, musical entertainment, representatives of U.S. Military, and more. A highlight of the event was an address to the children by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Yiddish, with a translation into English by Master of Ceremonies Rabbi Yaakov Yehudah ("JJ") Hecht.
Two years later, in 1980, I was a counselor on Sundays in a recreational program for Jewish children who lived on the "Lower East Side" of Manhattan. I had convinced the other young woman who worked together with me that our group of 9-year-old girls would enjoy being part of this show of Jewish pride and unity.
It was an unusually hot day and there was very little shade on the Parkway. The Rebbe addressed the crowd in Yiddish, and then quite unexpectedly switched to Russian. The Rebbe spoke for what seemed like an extremely long time. For the children under my care, both Yiddish and Russian were unfamiliar, and they began to fidget. My co-counselor, who hadn't been too eager to come to begin with, was looking at me with growing annoyance.
My glance alternated between the children, my co-counselor, and the Russian immigrants in the audience who were listening in shock to what the Rebbe was saying. The Rebbe was speaking in Russian fiery words demanding that synagogues in the USSR be open, and that every Jewish child in Russia be accorded his Soviet constitutional right to study Torah and practice Judaism!
It was clear to all who understood the Rebbe, that he was directing his words not primarily to the thousands of American Jewish children gathered at the parade, but to an international audience.
One older Lubavitcher woman who was standing nearby whispered to me that the Rebbe's impassioned remarks reminded her of the Rebbe's words at the Lag B'Omer parade in 1967. At that time, the Rebbe spoke about the tense situation in the Middle East and explained to the children what they could do to increase G-d's protection of the Holy Land. The Rebbe told the children that they could help by learning an extra verse of Torah, by doing another mitzva (commandment) and yet another, and not letting any opportunity slip by in the fulfillment of mitzvot. He also encouraged the children to influence their friends and family to utilize all their opportunities to increase Torah study and mitzva observance.
As a consequence of the children's efforts, the Rebbe said, we whould see the fulfillment of the assurance in the Torah portion read the previous day, "And you will dwell securely in your land... and I will give peace in the land." A cassette of the Rebbe's talk was rushed off to Israel where copies were made and it was listened to by people all over the trembling country. Barely a week later, on June 5, the "Six Day War" broke out.
The Rebbe's words at the 1980 parade as well, were being recorded. They found their mark behind the Iron Curtain, where they were played and replayed amongst refuseniks and underground Chasidim struggling at that time to keep Judaism alive.
(They were recently played at the annual Convention of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries in the former Soviet Union. Four hundred couples serve as the Rebbe's emissaries in the FSU!)
This year, more than 500,000 children are expected to participate in Lag B'Omer parades and events organized by Chabad-Lubavitch Centers world-wide. Lubavitch World Headquarters is hosting "The Great Parade." An estimated 20,000 people are expected to attend. A live concert features Jewish entertainers Uncle Moishy, Avraham Fried, Mordechai Ben David and Lipa Schmeltzer. The parade will be followed by the "Fun Fest Fair," complete with a petting zoo, carnival rides, street performers, concession stands, and a breathtaking presentation by the world famous "Nerveless Nocks," featuring the amazing motor bike high-wire show. For more details visit thegreatparade.com or call 661-LAG-5770. To find out about Lag B'Omer in your community, call your local Chabad-Lubavitch Center.
Kosher Around the World
Thanks to the efforts of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries around the world, food of the highest quality and kosher standards is being made available to more Jewish consumers. To mention a few: Green Yard Dairy Farm, located about 45 miles from Beijing, now produces organic, "chalav Yisrael" milk; "Tevye the Milkman" produced in S. Petersburg, Russia, offers milk, yogurt, sour cream, cottage cheese, ryazhenka, cheese, butter, yogurt, miniature cheese-cake and other dairy sweets; Kosher table wine, including Aligote, Cabernet, and white and red Aluston, are being produced by the renowned Massandra Winery in Crimea, Ukraine; In Yerevan, Armenia pomegranate wine, natural juices, pomegranate and apricot vodka, and fruit jam are being produced for local consumption and for export.
13 Iyar, 5730 (1970)
The story of Lag B'Omer, as related in the Talmud, is well-known.
Our Sages tell us that the disciples of Rabbi Akiva were stricken by a plague because they were not respectful toward one another.
But on the thirty-third day of the Sefira - Lag B'Omer - the plague stopped.
The story of Rabbi Akiva's students contains a lesson for every one of us.
The Talmud testifies that the students who died in the plague were "disciples of Rabbi Akiva."
It is clear that they were worthy of this title, which implies that they were dedicated to Torah and mitzvos (commandments) with devotion, diligence and self-sacrifice, as their teacher, Rabbi Akiva, had taught them.
It follows that their lack of respect for one another could not have been due to trivial matters, but was motivated by the high level of their spiritual standing as "disciples of Rabbi Akiva."
The explanation of their conduct is to be found in the saying of our Sages, that people generally have different opinions and different personalities.
Each individual has, therefore, his own approach in serving G-d, studying the Torah and observing the mitzvos.
For example, one person may do it primarily out of love of G-d; another person may do it primarily out of fear of G-d; a third may do it primarily out of a sense of complete obedience and submission to the Will of G-d; and so forth, though in actual practice, all of them, of course, fully and meticulously observe the Torah and mitzvos in their daily lives.
Being disciples of Rabbi Akiva, they were surely "men of truth," who served G-d with the utmost sincerity and devotion, which permeated their whole beings.
Thus, it seemed to each one of them that his particular approach was the right one, and any one who had not attained his level was lacking in perfection.
Moreover, being disciples of Rabbi Akiva, who taught, "You shall love your fellow Jew as yourself; this is the great principle of the Torah," they were not content personally to advance from strength to strength in their own way of serving G-d, but they wished also to share this with their friends and tried to influence them to follow their path.
Seeing that the others were reluctant to accept their particular approach, they could not respect them to the degree that was to be expected of the disciples of Rabbi Akiva.
In the light of the above, we can see that the story of Lag B'Omer in the Talmud teaches us what should be the correct conduct of each and every one of us, and the instruction is threefold:
- Serving G-d, studying the Torah and observing the mitzvos, both the mitzvos between one individual and another, and the mitzvos between an individual and G-d, must be performed with true inspiration and vitality, which permeate the whole of the person and his daily conduct.
- The above includes, of course, the great mitzva of "Love your fellow Jew as yourself," which must also be fulfilled with the utmost vitality and in the fullest measure.
- Together with the above, a person must look kindly and most respectfully upon every Jew, who differs only in the manner of worship, whether it is out of love, or out of reverence, etc.
A further instruction from the above is that even if one meets a Jew who has not yet attained the proper level of Divine service, the approach must still be that of respect and affection, in accordance with the teaching of our Sages, "Judge every person favorably."
Let the great Sage, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who considered Lag B'Omer his day of personal joy, be an example and inspiration to all of us.
For Rabbi Shimon said that he was prepared to give up all his merits in order to save the world from judgement (Sukka 45b).
In other words, he was prepared to give himself completely to a person who has no merits of his own, whom he never met, and who may be at the other end of the world. How much more so should one be ready to give of himself for the benefit of near and dear ones and all his friends.
May G-d bless each one of you that you live and act in accordance with the spirit of Lag B'Omer and that you do so with the utmost measure of true Ahavas Yisrael (love of a fellow Jew), with joy and gladness of heart, to hasten the realization of the words of the Lag B'Omer week's Torah portion, "I will break the bars of your yoke (in exile) and make you go upright" - in fulfillment of the true and complete Redemption through Moshiach.
LEVI means "joined to." Levi was the son of Jacob (Yaakov) and Leah (Genesis 29:34). All the Priests and Levites who served in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem were his descendants.
LEAH means "to be weary." In Genesis (29:17) she was the daughter of Laban and the first wife of Jacob.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
This coming Sunday, on the 18th of Iyar (May 2 this year) we celebrate Lag B'Omer. Lag B'Omer is especially known for two historic events: On Lag B'Omer, the deadly plague which had attacked the students of Rabbi Akiva ceased. Years later, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai passed away on Lag B'Omer.
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was one of the foremost Talmudic sages. He also wrote the Zohar, the primary text of Kabala.
It is customary to celebrate Lag B'Omer with outdoor activities. Children and students who would normally be indoors studying go out into parks and fields to play and enjoy nature. The intent of this custom is to bring Torah study "into the fields," to unify all aspects of Torah and Jewish observance with the world around us.
Another custom on Lag B'Omer is to light bonfires in the evening. In Israel, children collect firewood for weeks to assure a big, beautiful (supervised) bonfire!
This custom originates in the idea that on the day that Rabbi Shimon passed away, a great light filled the world because of all of the secrets of Torah wisdom that Rabbi Shimon revealed to his students. These secrets, now revealed, were recorded in the Zohar.
The sun did not set until Rabbi Shimon had revealed all that he was allowed to. As soon as he was done, the sun set and he passed on.
The Zohar also states: "With this book we will come out of the exile with mercy." may the end of exile and the beginning of the Redemption take place immediately NOW!
Speak unto the priests (Lev. 21:1)
The name of this week's Torah portion, Emor ("say"), contains a lesson for us all: We must strive to always speak well of our fellow Jew and judge one another favorably. Just as saying something negative about someone reveals his negative qualities, words of praise reveal the inner good.
None of them shall defile himself, among his people (b'amav) (Lev. 21:1)
The Hebrew word "amav" is related to the word "im'um," dimming or growing dark, as in dying embers or coals that have been left to burn out on their own. Serving G-d "dimly," halfheartedly and without fervor, is the cause of all defilement and impurity. The Torah warns us against allowing our G-dly spark to grow dim. Rather, it must be constantly nurtured and rekindled.
(The Rebbe of Alexander)
In the manner that he has caused a defect in someone, so shall it be done to him (Lev. 24:20)
If one finds a defect or something lacking in his fellow man, this is a sign that "so shall it be done to him" - that he himself is the one that has the defect. "He who charges others, charges them with his own faults."
On Lag B'Omer it is customary for children to go out into the fields and play with bows and arrows. For adults, there is a custom of visiting the local cemetery on Lag B'Omer. In the town of Homil, every year on this day, all the Jews would pay their respects to the dearly departed: parents, Chasidim, Torah scholars and other beloved members of the community.
The Chevra Kadisha, or Burial Society, would also make its annual visit to the cemetery on the afternoon of Lag B'Omer. Notebook in hand, its members would make the rounds of all the graves and check on the condition of the tombstones. Anything requiring repair was duly noted.
Towards evening, their inspection over, the members of the Chevra Kadisha would gather together for a communal seuda (festive meal). It was always an inspirational event, dedicated to furthering the observance of "acts of true kindness" (as Jewish burial practices are called, as the dead cannot be expected to reciprocate).
It was also customary for the famous Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac of Homil (1770 - 1857, one of the greatest early Chabad Chasidim) to participate in the gathering, joining the Chevra Kadisha in their celebration. Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac, one of the greatest followers of the early Chabad leaders, would make a "l'chaim" and deliver some appropriate words of Torah.
Before he arrived, however, Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac would always conduct his own pilgrimage to visit the grave-sites of his predecessors. Year after year he would follow the same schedule, until one time, something most unusual occurred.
That Lag B'Omer it was already growing late when Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac began his rounds, accompanied by the cemetery caretaker. The setting sun elongated his shadow, accentuating his long white beard. At each grave the Rabbi whispered something audible only to him before moving on to the next one.
At the very end of the cemetery, in the newer section where the most recently deceased were interred, the rabbi paused in front of an obviously new marble monument. Bending down, he read the inscription to make sure it was the one he was looking for before nodding his head slightly.
"Quickly!" he suddenly turned and called to the caretaker. "Go back to town and bring an ax. A strong one, with a heavy blade." The caretaker did as he was told, and few minutes later he was back.
"Now I want you to obliterate everything it says here," the rabbi instructed him. "Take off all the words of praise, all the flowery eulogies and tributes. Leave nothing but the name of the deceased and the date he died."
The caretaker hesitated, frozen in place. But Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac was insistent. "Please, just do what I tell you," he implored him.
With trembling hands the caretaker lifted the ax and demolished the engraving, erasing the litany of good deeds the deceased had accomplished during his lifetime. When the deed was done, a look of satisfaction could be seen on the face of the rabbi. "Good," he told the astounded caretaker. "Now I can attend the seuda with the Chevra Kadisha."
The news of what had happened quickly spread throughout Homil. Indeed, the rumor reached the ears of the members of the Burial Society even before Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac arrived at their celebration.
"Thank G-d I was able to do an act of kindness for a Jewish soul," the rabbi announced as he walked in the door. It was obvious from the way everyone was looking at him that they were completely mystified by his behavior.
The rabbi sat down and made a blessing over a glass of spirits. "L'chaim - to life!" he wished the assemblage before launching into an explanation:
"A few weeks ago," he began, "a simple Jew passed away in Homil. His funeral was small and unassuming. Only a few members of his family were present, plus representatives of the Chevra Kadisha. Like many others, despite the fact that he wasn't particularly learned or saintly, he was a warmhearted Jew who had many mitzvot to his credit. On the other hand, he also occasionally faltered like everyone else. In other words, he was your average Jew.
"After he died, his soul went up to the Heavenly Court, where his good deeds and bad deeds came under intense scrutiny. The judgment was about to be issued when, all of a sudden, an angel stood up holding a glistening white marble tablet. It was the tombstone that the deceased's children had erected over his final resting place.
"It seems that the man's children had decided to bestow upon their father - or upon themselves - a number of undeserved honors. The lengthy inscription described a lifetime of devoutness and piety, which, in reality, was only a fabrication. The Heavenly Court was disturbed by this miscarriage of justice.
"Today I did a very great favor for the soul of the departed," the rabbi concluded. "When I erased all of the undeserved words of praise, the Heavenly Court ruled that the man's soul could now receive the true reward it was legitimately entitled to."
The root of the soul of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi) was on the level of Moshiach, and therefore he could reveal the secrets of the Torah. (Siddur Admur HaZakein, p. 613) ... The revelation of these secrets of the Torah will bring the greatest good, the true and complete redemption through our righteous Moshiach.
(Likkutei Sichos, Vol. V, pp. 129-131)