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Weekly Chizuk



This coming Motzei Shabbos is Lag b'Omer. The custom of Klal Yisroel is to celebrate this day in honor of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Generally it is referred to as a Hillula d'Rashbi. Many reasons have been given for this celebration. Many have attributed this day as being his Yahrzeit when Rabbi Shimon departed and went up to Heaven. However, the Chida writes a different reason that after losing his 24,000 talmidim, on Lag B'Omer Rabbi Akiva started teaching the Masters of the South, one of whom was Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai.

(The following is from Rav Elimelech Biderman)

The Gemara says that Rebbe Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of talmidim (24,000 students) and they all died between Pesach and Shavuos because they didn't honor one another. The Beis Yosef explains that they actually stopped dying two weeks before Shavuos, on Lag b'Omer. Therefore, the days of sefirah are days of mourning and Lag b'Omer is a day for celebrating.

The Pri Chodosh (" ' " ") asks, why should we celebrate on Lag b'Omer? It is true that the students stopped dying on Lag b'Omer, but that is mostly because almost all the students had already perished and only five students remained. So what is there to be happy about?

The Pri Chodosh answers, on this day Reb Akiva took his five remaining students, and he began to teach them Torah and from them Torah continues to live on in Klal Yisrael. This is a reason to celebrate.

Let's contemplate on what happened at that time. Only a few weeks before, Reb Akiva had twenty-four thousand talmidim. They all died. Every day there were hundreds of funerals. The situation was heartbreaking (for lack of better word). Rebbe Akiva was left with only five talmidim. But Rebbe Akiva didn't give up. If there are only five students left, he would teach them. And from them, Torah came forth to the world.

All Torah that we have today, is essentially from those five talmidim: Rebbe Meir, Rebbe Yehudah, Rebbe Yossi, Rebbe Shimon and Rebbe Elazer ben Shamu'a. The names of these five talmidim are strewn throughout the Mishnah. The Zohar and Kabbalah, were authored by Rebbe Shimon and his talmidim. These great tannaim are the main continuation of the Oral Law, Torah shel b'al peh. This fortunate continuation of Torah transpired because Rebbe Akiva didn't lose hope, and he salvaged whatever he could so Torah will remain by Yidden, and not be forgotten.

We should learn from Rebbe Akiva never to lose hope. Sometimes it seems like everything is destroyed, but if we don't lose hope, we can rebuild again. This happened after the Holocaust. The talmidei chachomim who survived the War didn't close shop. They built on top of the ashes, until Torah flourished once again. If they would have succumbed to despair, there wouldn't be Torah and yiddishkeit today.

And this is the approach that everyone person should have for the issues in his life. Regardless whether one's problems are related to spiritual or worldly issues, never lose hope. Keep davening, continue trying, and you will see wonders.

The Nachlas Avos tells that the Tana Yochai (Rebbe Shimon's father) was married for many years, and didn't have any children. Yochai decided to divorce and marry someone else, so he could have the mitzvah of bearing children. His wife heard of his plan but didn't want a divorce. She wept bitter tears and prayed intensely for children.

On the night of Rosh Hashanah, Yochai had a dream. He was in a vast orchard where there were countless trees; some were tall, and some were small, some bore plentiful fruit, and some were dried up. He was leaning on a small dried up tree, without fruit. An angel came into the orchard, carrying a barrel of water and started watering some of the trees and passing up on otheres. Yochai understood that the trees represented people and whichever tree the angel watered, meant that this person would bear a child that year. How he hoped that the malach would pour some water on his sapling as well, so he would finally merit bearing a child.

The malach came to Yochai's tree. But instead of pouring water from the barrel, instead, the angel took out a small jug of water, and poured the water over the tree. The tree immediately grew to a great height, sprouted flowers, and large, beautiful fruit grew on this tree.

When he awoke, he told his wife about the dream. They understood that the dream was baring good tidings; telling them that they would have a child that year.

On motzei Rosh Hashanah, Yochai repeated his dream to his teacher, Rebbe Akiva. Rebbe Akiva agreed that the dream meant that they would have a child that year. Yochai asked, "Why didn't the angel water my tree from the barrel, as he watered all the other trees? What is the significance of that small jug filled with water?"

Rebbe Akiva answered, "This jug wasn't filled with water. It was filled with your wife's tears; the tears she shed when she begged Hashem for children. In the merit of those tears you will bear a holy child." That year, on Shavuos, the Yom Tov of Kabbolas HaTorah, Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai was born.

This story, too, is a reminder not to lose hope. We should continue davening and trusting in Hashem, and in the end we will receive Hashem's blessings. We discussed Rebbe Akiva, and we discussed Rebbe Shimon's mother, now let's consider Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai himself. His life story also teaches us that we should never give up, regardless of the situation.

The Romans wanted to execute Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai. When he heard of this decree he ran away and hid in a cave where he lived secluded for thirteen years, together with his son, Rebbe Elazar. On Lag b'Omer we sing "There you acquired your glory." It was specifically in that cave that Rebbe Shimon reached his unprecedented heights. Rebbe Shimon could have despaired and felt that all is lost. He was distant from the Torah centers, removed from all teachers and students. Furthermore, at this point, Rebbe Shimon thought that he may need to remain in the cave forever. He didn't know that eventually he would be able to leave. (We will soon write what occurred, that caused Rebbe Shimon to courageously leave the cave.) Living in a cave forever, doesn't seem to be very productive and glorious. But Rebbe Shimon continued to study Torah with all his might there in the cave, and it was particularly there that he reached his outstanding, unfathomable heights. He reached those levels, because he didn't lose hope.

When did Rebbe Shimon decide that he can leave the cave? According to the Bavli (Shabbos 33b) Eliyahu Hanavi came and informed him that the Caesar had died, and the decree against him had been annulled. The Yerushalmi (Shvi'is 9:1) and several Medrashim supply us with a different story. After twelve years of living in the cave, Rebbe Shimon still wasn't certain that he could return home. It didn't seem safe, since the Romans were still after him. But one day, he left the cave for a short time, and watched a hunter catch birds. Rebbe Shimon was able to hear the announcements that were said in heaven. Sometimes, he heard heaven announce dimus (free). When this was said in heaven, the hunter wasn't able to catch the bird. Other times, he heard heaven say sapkula (caught) and the hunter caught the bird.

This taught Rebbe Shimon a lesson in hashgachah pratis. He realized that even a bird isn't caught, unless Hashem decrees it. He said to his son, Rebbe Elazer, "If Hashem's hashgachah pratis is over the birds, He certainly has hashgachah pratis over us. Even a bird can't be caught without Hashem's decree. The Romans will certainly not be able to harm us, if it isn't Hashem's will."

That is when they courageously left the cave. They weren't afraid, because they knew that nothing could happen to them if it wasn't Hashem's will. Originally, when he entered the cave he thought that he might remain there forever, but he never lost hope. He continued to study Torah with all his might. And that led to his greatness.

We relate these stories so we can follow in the tzaddikim's ways. We must know that even Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai, and all tzaddikim of the past, had great struggles and challenges. And it is specifically because they passed all these tests that they reached the levels that they did. When we read about how Rebbe Akiva and Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai never lost hope, we must learn a lesson for ourselves, never to lose hope even in the most dire situation. 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!

Rabbi Eliezer Parkoff
4 Panim Meirot, Jerusalem 94423 Israel
Tel: 732-858-1257
Rabbi Parkoff is author of "Chizuk!" and "Trust Me!" (Feldheim Publishers), and "Mission Possible!" (Israel Book Shop Lakewood).
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