A new series on Yom Tov, Rabbi Silber shares some of the basic highlights for the upcoming Jewish holiday.
“And you shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the rest day from the day you bring the omer as a wave offering seven weeks; they shall be complete. You shall count until the day after the seventh week, [namely,] the fiftieth day, [on which] you shall bring a new meal offering to the Lord.” (Vayikra 23:15-16)
God commands us to count the days from Pesach until Shavuos. Why the need to count? The commentaries provide many layers of insight. Yet, on the most basic level, God was teaching us an important lesson; the exodus was not the end; it was a means towards establishing a life of holiness and meaning. We left Egypt to accept the Torah at Mount Sinai. The Torah, with its plethora of commandments and life-lessons, provides us the ability to find the holiness within ourselves and our world. As such, God commanded us to count these days to link the events of Pesach and Shavuos, in order to establish a connection between our freedom and Sinaitic revelation. God tells us, “I took you out of Egypt so you could receive the Torah. I gave you the Torah so you can change yourselves and the world.”
This past Wednesday night and Thursday we celebrated the 33rd day of the Omer, a day we simply refer to as Lag Ba’omer. The Shulchan Aruch, in reference to this day says, “U’marbim bo k’tzas simcha, we enhance the day with a bit more joy.” Why is this day unique? And if it is indeed special why only “k’tzas simcha, a bit more joy”?
The Talmud (Yevamos 62b) tells us that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students and they all died, “al shelo nahagu kavod zeh la’zeh, for they did not give proper honor one to the other.” The Talmud goes on to explain that these deaths occurred between Pesach and Shavuos and according to many, the deaths ceased on the 33rd day of the Omer. But the question is obvious: why celebrate the cessation of the plague? We celebrate events and occurrences which are truly joyous because of their positive, dynamic momentum. The plague stopped because all the students had died, there was no one left. It is understandable that we can stop our mourning practices on Lag Ba’omer, but to celebrate (even just a little bit) seems out of place.
The Pri Chadash (Rav Chizkiya Silva, 1659-1698) explains this dynamic by examining the end of the previously quoted passage:
“… the (Torah) world was desolate (as a result of the death of the 24,000 students) until Rabbi Akiva went to the rabbis of the south (of Israel) and began to teach them. Who were they? Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Elazar ben Shamuah. These new students re-established the world of Torah in this turbulent time.” (Yevamos 62b)
When did Rabbi Akiva go and find these new students? Right after he attended the funeral of the final student who had passed away. My dear friends, let’s take a moment to reflect on these powerful words. In the span of just a few weeks Rabbi Akiva had to bury 24,000 students. But the tragedy didn’t end there. He cared for their widows and orphans; he was tasked with the overwhelming responsibility helping tens of thousands to rebuild their lives. And what of his personal loss? Rabbi Akiva devoted his life to building his students and his yeshiva. His entire life’s work was intertwined with the lives of his students and now it was all gone. No students, no yeshiva, just immeasurable amounts of pain and heartbreak. Rabbi Akiva would have been within his right to say, “I’m done. I tried, I devoted my life to my people and to my God, but alas my efforts were not meant to endure. I am an old man; someone else will need to find the strength and courage to rebuild. I did my share.” And who would have faulted Rabbi Akiva had he chosen to “retire,” learn in his local Beis Midrash, spend time with his family and leave the work for others. But he didn’t. Rather, immediately following the last funeral, he dried his tears, dusted himself off, said goodbye to his family and began the journey to the south of Israel to find new students and begin the process of rebuilding. And when did all of this happen? On Lag Ba’omer. This day, Lag Ba’omer, is not simply another day in the sefirah count. This day is a testament to the strength of the human spirit. It is this day that reminds us we can all be Rabbi Akiva. It is on Lag Ba’omer that we understand that although we may be faced with incredible challenges, we need not yield to or buckle beneath them. Sometimes, we need to dry our tears, pick ourselves up and figure out how to keep moving forward.
This is the meaning of the Shulchan Aruch’s statement, “U’marbim bo k’tzas simcha, we enhance the day with a bit more joy.” Lag Ba’omer does not possess the almost childish joy of Purim, nor does it possess the reverential happiness of our Yomim Tovim. Lag Ba’omer is the day on which we confront our challenges and recognize that for many of us life is filled with much adversity and difficulty. Yet it is on this sacred day that we pledge to be like our ancestor Rabbi Akiva and find a way to regroup and rebuild. This is the “little bit of simcha” of Lag Ba’omer. Perhaps, our responsibility is to take this simcha with us into the remaining days of Sefira. We celebrated our freedom on Pesach. Pesach was a new beginning, an opportunity to start fresh and begin to actualize our goals and dreams. Truthfully, over the last few weeks, we may have fallen short. The taste of Matzah is long gone and perhaps, the inspiration from the beautiful Yom Tov has begun to fade. IWe have gone back to “business as usual.” Lag Ba’omer, reminds us that we can always start again. The verse in this week’s Parsha, U’sfartem Lachem, reminds us that we can make each and every day count and we can begin anew whenever we desire. May the courage of Rabbi Akiva and the holy words of Parshas Emor inspire us to do more, be more and when necessary, start again.
At first glance, the Haggadah appears to be a collection of random verses, stories and statements. However, upon further reflection we come to understand the intentional yet, nuanced structure of this ancient script. The Talmud (Pesachim 115) explains Maschil B’Genus U’Misayeym B’Shevach, we begin with degradation and conclude with praise. We begin the Seder by discussing the “low points” or disparaging chapters of our national existence. The sages disagree as to which “low point” we should begin with. Shmuel explains that we begin with, “Avadim Hayinu, we were slaves.” We acknowledge that we did not begin as a nation of free men and women. We were slaves who served a human master. Rav opines, “Mitchila Ovdei Avoda Zara Hayu Avoseinu, in the beginning our forefathers were idolaters.” We were not always monotheists, we did not always pledge our allegiance to God, we served and paid homage to other gods. According to Shmuel, over the course of the Pesach Seder we work our way to celebrating our physical freedom. According Rav, the Seder is the opportunity to celebrate our newfound spiritual emancipation. Rav and Shmuel may disagree on the specific beginning and end points but do agree on the structure of the Seder night; Maschil B’Genus U’Misayeym B’Shevach, we begin with degradation and conclude with praise.
What is the meaning of this rabbinic framework? Why must we start with the negative or disparaging chapters of our national existence? Why not begin and end with our freedom, emancipation and positive identity as the nation of God?
The commentaries on the Haggadah share many approaches and answers. The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush, 1809-1879) explains that the best way to make a dramatic point is through contrast. One appreciates light when one has been exposed to darkness. In order to fully appreciate the freedom granted to us on this sacred night, we must first acquaint ourselves with servitude. In order to feel physically free, we must spend time reminiscing, Avadaim Hayinu L’Pharoah B’Mitzrayim, we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. Only after we engage in historical reflection and taste some of the bitter marror, can we truly thank God for redeeming us. In order to fully celebrate our spiritual emancipation, we must reflect what it was like to be a spiritual wanderer, not knowing what to believe or how to connect. Mitchila Ovdei Avoda Zara Hayu Avoseinu, in the beginning our forefathers were idolaters. Only when we remember our past can we truly appreciate our future.
The great Maggid of Kohznitz (Rav Yisroel Hopstein, 1737-1814) provides another beautiful insight. The Maggid explains that the greatest danger we face in life is believing we are beyond salvation. A person may think to himself, “I have done so many terrible things, I have tarnished my soul, I have sullied my reputation, I have failed to actualize my potential; what hope is there for me?” Maschil B’Genus, even if the beginning is degrading, even if the beginning is stunted and handicapped, Misayeym B’Shevach, I choose how the story ends, I can change, I can live better, do better and create a beautiful future. We were slaves, we were more animal than man, we were viewed by others and we viewed ourselves as cattel and property. And yet, look at us now; we are a strong and free people. We were idolaters, spiritually bankrupt and estranged from God and yet, we managed to find our way home. We lifted ourselves from serving the creations of our hands to serving the King of Kings. We cannot always rewrite the past but we can absolutely decide how to script our future.
Perhaps, there is a third lesson as well. Life requires patience. Events occur and we search for answers. Situations unfold and we try desperately to understand their deeper meaning. We want insight and clarity and we want it now. Clarity will come but it often requires the passage of time. Maschil B’Genus U’Misayeym B’Shevach, we begin with degradation and conclude with praise, the difficult life situations will have a positive resolution (not necessarily the resolution we desire, but positive nevertheless). However, just as it takes time to reach the Shevach (praise) contained within the Haggadah; it takes time to see our personal praise and resolution as well. It will come, but we must be patient.
Maschil B’Genus U’Misayeym B’Shevach, we begin with degradation and conclude with praise; the rabbis were not simply giving us a format for the Haggadah, they were providing us with a format for life. To actualize our freedom and maximize our ability to shape our personal and national destiny we must internalize the messages of the Haggadah. We must remember that while building our future; we must reflect on the events and messages of our past. No matter how far we have wandered, no matter how estranged we have become from God, ourselves and one another, no person is beyond salvation. We must bear in mind that resolution, understanding and happiness will come to those who are patient enough to wait.