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LAG B'OMER - SHIMON BAR YOCHAI
On Lag b'Omer the custom of Klal Yisroel is to celebrate in honor of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Generally it is referred to as a celebration in honor of R. Shimon bar Yochai (Hillula d'Rashbi). Many reasons have been given for this celebration. Many have claimed that on this day Rabbi Shimon departed and went up to Heaven. It is his Yahrzeit. However, the Chida writes that after his 24,000 talmidim passed away, on Lag B'Omer Rabbi Akiva started teaching the Masters of the South.
The Meiri in Yevamos writes that it was on this day that the plague ceased. We know that the 49 days of the Counting of the Omer are directly connected to the 48 ways of learning Torah (Avos chap. 6). When we count the ways of learning Torah, day by day, it comes out that on the 32nd day we have to study "love of people."
When the talmidim of Rabbi Akiva perfected themselves on the 32nd day with love of others, the plague stopped on the 33rd day. In our times, when each day seems more cursed than yesterday, and so many dangers and illness are plaguing Klal Yisroel, it is incumbent upon us to strengthen our love of our neighbors and honor of our friends in order that we shall find life and true harmony.
Some say it is the day that Rebbi Shimon and his son Elazar came out of the cave (Oruch Hashulchan 493:7). It is probably not a coincidence that the famous story of R. Shimon bar Yochai is on daf 33 of the gemora Shabbos:
The three great sages Rebbi Yehudah, Rebbi Yossi and Rebbi Shimon were once engrossed in a debate. While Rebbi Yehudah credited the Romans for their great achievements in building roads, bridges and bath-houses, Rebbi Shimon countered that this was done only for their own self interests and certainly was not done with the Jews in mind. The bath houses were built for their own enjoyment and the bridges were built to collect taxes so they could fill their own coffers. Rebbi Yossi sat silently, listening to the debate but not offering any comment of his own.
A man by the name of Yehuda ben Geirim who sat nearby and heard the entire discussion, repeated these comments and the word soon spread until it reached the ears of the Roman authorities. Rebbi Shimon's remarks were considered an act of incitement and treason, and he was immediately condemned to death. Rebbi Yossi was condemned to be exiled to Zippori for his silence and lack of defense for the holy Roman Empire. Rebbi Yehudah was rewarded by being made the speaker of the Sanhedrin for his favorable remarks.
Rebbi Shimon was forewarned that the soldiers were on their way to arrest him, so he quickly hid in the shul's attic. He stayed hidden there with his son while the police continued their search in vain. Each day his wife would come and bring them food. As the search for him intensified, he was afraid that they would torture his wife in order to discover his secret hiding place. He left in the middle of the night and hid in a cave in the wilderness. A miracle occurred and a carob tree suddenly appeared and a spring of water burst forth nearby. All day they would learn Torah together uninterrupted by any disturbances. They only wore their clothes during davening and covered their bodies in sand during learning in order to conserve them.
After having spent twelve years totally engrossed in learning Torah, Eliyahu Hanavi appeared at the entrance of the cave and notified them that the Roman Emperor had died and therefore all prisoners were granted an automatic pardon to return home. As they began their walk back into town, they noticed a farmer plowing and planting a field. "Why is he wasting his precious time preparing for his needs for this world when he ought to spend his valuable time making preparations for the world to come," he wondered. He looked at him with his penetrating holy eyes and the man immediately turned into a heap of bones. Thereupon a heavenly voice called out. "Do you want to destroy my world? Go back to the cave." They spent one more year in the cave totally immersed in Torah. After a year they began their journey back to civilization. On the way he saw a Jew carrying two bundles of myrtles. When he questioned him as to their purpose, the man replied that they were for the holy Shabbos. One was in honor of the word shomor (keep the Shabbos), while the other was in honor of the word zochor (remember the Shabbos).
R. Shimon, we see was a man of absolute truth. Even when speaking the truth could have terrible consequences, he refused to swerve from his integrity. After experiencing total immersion in Torah during his years in the cave, he now took his dedication to truth one step further: he became the chief advocate of the school of thought that one should totally devote himself to Torah study (Berachos 35) for Torah is absolute reality:
"And you shall gather in your grain" (Devorim 11:14). What is the meaning of this verse? Being that it states, "This Sefer Torah shall not depart from your mouth..." shall we take this literally? But doesn't it also state, "And you shall gather in your grain?" [If we are busy farming, how can we be learning constantly? In order to resolve this seeming contradiction, we have to interpret it thusly:] Conduct with [the study of the Torah] a manner of worldly enterprise (Derech Eretz - דרך ארץ). [One should study, but also have some form of income to support oneself.] These are the words of R. Yishmael.
R. Shimon bar Yochai said, Is it possible for a person to plow at the time of plowing, plant at the time for planting, harvest at the time of the harvest...? What will become of the Torah!? Rather [the resolution of the contradiction between the two verses is] when Yisroel do the will of the Almighty, their work is done by others.... But when Yisroel do not do the will of the Almighty, their work must be done by themselves, as it says "And you shall gather in your grain."
Abaye said, Many conducted themselves like R. Yishmael, and were successful. Many attempted to act like R. Shimon bar Yochai, but were unsuccessful.
The halacha is poskined like R. Yishmael Rabbi Shimon's school of thought is too lofty for us common folk. However, one who is able to conduct himself like R. Shimon bar Yochai is praiseworthy. Even though we may not be capable of living up to such high standards, nevertheless, we should learn the importance of Torah learning from Rebbe Shimon. Torah is our key to the world of Truth, the Olam Ha'emes. The Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 52:3) relates a scenario very relevant to our times:
A disciple of R. Shimon bar Yochai once traveled abroad and returned to Eretz-Yisrael a wealthy man. When his fellow students saw this, they became jealous and also wanted to leave the yeshivah to make their fortunes. R. Shimon found out about this and took them out to a valley near Meron. He started praying, and said, "Valley, valley, fill up with gold coins." Immediately, the valley began filling with gold coins before the eyes of the awestruck students. R. Shimon said to them, "If it's gold you want, here it is. Take it! But I must tell you that anyone who benefits now is detracting from his portion in the world to Come, for the reward of Torah is only in the World to Come."
On this special day of festivities in honor of Rebbe Shimon we should be careful of becoming so engrossed in celebrating that we forget the man and his teachings. It is a day to reflect on the importance of our holy Torah and undertake to feel the same joy in our learning and in Yiddishkeit as we do singing around the bonfire.
Wishing everyone a Gut Shabbos!
Shema Yisrael Torah Network