A Sicha from the Rebbe – Lag BaOmer

The Rebbe says:

1. We find many explanations as to why we are supposed to have special happiness on Lag B’Omer. Here are two of the reasons:

1) The students of Rebbi Akiva, who began dying on the second day of Pesach (Passover), stopped dying on Lag B’Omer.

2) Lag B’Omer is the day when the Rashbi (Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai) passed away (some time after the year that the students of Rebbi Akiva stopped dying) (and the Rashbi himself gave orders to be happy and festive on the anniversary of his passing).

2. The Rebbe now sets out to understand the connection between these two occasions:

Being that everything in Torah is exact, we must say that there is an essential connection between the Yahrtzeit (anniversary of passing) of the Rashbi and the fact that the students of Rebbi Akiva stopped dying, besides for the simple connection that the Rashbi was a student of Rebbi Akiva as well.

However, not only do we not clearly see the connection between the two, they seem like opposite occasions:

The Talmud tells us that when the twenty four thousand students of Rebbi Akiva died they left the world barren (of Torah), however the five students who did remain alive, one of them being the Rashbi, upheld the study of Torah at that time. In other words, when we say that one of the reasons we celebrate on Lag B’Omer is because the students of Rebbi Akiva stopped dying; we are in turn saying that we are celebrating the life of the Rashbi (and the other four students) who kept the Torah alive. However the second reason for celebration is that it’s the Yahrtzeit of the Rashbi! Is it the life or passing of the Rashbi that we are celebrating?

3. The Rebbe answers this seeming inconsistency:

Our Sages explain (based on verses in the Torah) that the life of a Tzadik (a righteous and saintly man) is not a fleshy life but a spiritual life, consisting of faith, awe, and love (of G-d). Our Sages also tell us that on the day of a Tzadik’s passing all of his life’s deeds, Torah, and service to Hashem (G-d) come together as one and this is therefore when the Tzadik reaches his completion, and this shines brightly on the day of his passing.

Putting these two facts together we understand that not only is the passing of a Tzadik not in contradiction to his life because his life was not a fleshy one (as we just said); but the passing of a Tzadik is the ultimate celebration of his life because this is when his life- which is his Torah and service to Hashem- comes together as a completed whole and shines brightly.

Furthermore, not only does this explain the seeming contradiction of the two reasons for joy on Lag B’Omer, this is also begins the explanation of the special service of the Rashbi during his lifetime: We must say that the service of the Rashbi was unlike the service of the other twenty four thousand students of Rebbi Akiva, because their service brought about their death in an unfavorable way, whereas the service of the Rashbi not only kept him alive, but was the antidote to the plague which befell the students of Rebbi Akiva, and this is indeed why the Rashbi’s Yahrtzeit is on the same day that the students stopped dying- Lag B’Omer.

4. The Rebbe now begins explaining where the students of Rebbi Akiva went wrong, what the service of the Rashbi was, and how this service was the antidote to the plague on the students:

First of all, we must understand that even though all of the other four remaining students of Rebbi Akiva must have had the same type of service as the Rashbi because they all remained alive; nevertheless being that only the Yahrtzeit of the Rashbi was on Lag B’Omer, which means that the entire service of the Rashbi culminates on Lag B’Omer/the day the students stopped dying, we must say that the Rashbi was especially involved in a certain type of service which stopped the death of the students.

Now let’s understand everything:

5. The Rebbe explains where the students of Rebbi Akiva went wrong:

The Talmud tells us that the students of Rebbi Akiva died because they did not treat each other with respect. However this is difficult to come to terms with because their own teacher was the author of the statement that, “To love your fellow Jew as yourself is a big principle of the Torah”! How could Rebbi Akiva’s own students, whom the Talmud refers to as students which means they were indeed true students, behave like this?

One of the explanations given for this is that each one of the students had his own way of understanding and internalizing his teacher’s lessons, and he served Hashem according to this understanding. Moreover, being that they were true students of Rebbi Akiva, who is quoted as saying, “All my days I was troubled… And I said to myself, ‘When will the opportunity come to my hands that I may fulfill giving up my life for the sake of Hashem’”, each student inherited this conduct of absolute self sacrifice which entirely consumes the person. Therefore, we can understand that each student was entirely consumed with what they thought was the correct mode of serving Hashem and didn’t leave room for any other possibility. Each student thought that the other one was missing in his service to Hashem because he wasn’t serving Him the way he thought was true.

Furthermore, being that they were true students of Rebbi Akiva who put such emphasis on loving your fellow Jew, they couldn’t just watch as their colleagues served Hashem in an “incomplete” fashion; they weren’t satisfied until their colleagues served Hashem the way they thought was true. However when their fellow colleagues declined to accept their mode of service to Hashem (because they thought their own way was indeed the true way), being that they were men of truth who do not say one thing and think another, they couldn’t have proper respect for their friend who was serving Hashem “erroneously”.

6. The Rebbe explains why this is wrong:

When a person only operates on the level of being consumed with self sacrifice to Hashem (Mesiras Nefesh) this creates a feeling of wanting to leave his body and become one with Hashem (Ratzoy). However, even though this is a great level for the person who is acting this way, this is not the will of Hashem. Hashem desires a dwelling place down here in this physical world. In other words, Hashem wants our feelings of wanting to be close to Him (Ratzoy) to not only be implemented into our actions (Shuv), but even be the cause and driving force of our involvement in this world.

This also gives us a deeper meaning to the (abovementioned) words of the Talmud that “when the twenty four thousand students of Rebbi Akiva died they left the world barren”: The twenty four thousand students of Rebbi Akiva did not concentrate on bringing G-dliness into this world; they let the world continue to be a barren wasteland of holiness.

7. The Rebbe now explains why five students of Rebbi Akiva didn’t die:

Regarding the five students who remained alive the Talmud tells us that they “upheld the (study of) Torah”. The deeper meaning of this is that since they also had an overwhelming desire to be one with Hashem (Ratzoy), and they knew that Hashem wanted the Torah to be implemented in this world, this caused them to concentrate on actualizing this desire and implement the Torah down here (Shuv), unlike the other students who’s desire to be one with Hashem caused them to leave this world.

Where did these five students get this mode of conduct from? From their teacher Rebbi Akiva:

The Talmud tells us of four scholars who “entered the orchard (Pardes)”, that is, embarked on a quest for secret knowledge of G-d. For three of them this journey ended in disaster; one died, one went insane, and the third became an apostate. Only Rebbi Akiva “entered in peace and emerged in peace”; he was totally unscathed from the journey. The deeper meaning of this is that since he “entered in peace”, meaning, that he had the mindset that he was going on this quest in order to apply the sublime truths he gained to his earthly existence, that is why he “emerged in peace” and came back safely. (His three peers however did not enter in peace; they lost sight of their purpose in life because of their rapturous yearning to escape physicality and reunite with G-d).

In other words, Rebbi Akiva’s overwhelming desire to be one with Hashem (Ratzoy) caused him to realize that his purpose is down here in this physical world (Shuv), and he passed this on to the five proper and true students.

8. The Rebbe now finishes off explaining why specifically the Rashbi’s Yahrtzeit is on Lag B’Omer by showing us how we clearly see that the Rashbi embodied this type of service which stops the dying of the students:

The Talmud tells us that when the Roman Emperor ordered the execution of the Rashbi he went and hid in a cave for thirteen years. While the Rashbi was in the cave he was separated from the world and didn’t even have the means to perform the Mitzvos with physical objects. He had to resort to accomplishing the Mitzvos in their spiritual sense. This is obviously a form of being connected to Hashem through spirituality alone (Ratzoy).

However when he emerged from the cave after his thirteen year escape, the Talmud tells us that when his son Reb Elazar would destroy something through his fiery gaze because he couldn’t bear to see people forsaking the pursuit of the world to come and instead occupying themselves with the temporary life, the Rashbi would then heal it. Furthermore, the Talmud tells us that the Rashbi went to the leaders of the community and asked them, “Is there something here that needs improvement?” These are both forms of realizing the importance of being in this world (Shuv).

In short, his going into the cave and being separated from the world (Ratzoy) caused his newfound emphasis on fixing this world (Shuv), just like his teacher Rebbi Akiva (as explained above) about whom the Rashbi said, “My sons (students), study my teachings, because my teachings are the cream of the cream of Rebbi Akiva’s teachings”.

As a last note, since “Hashem looked into the Torah (as a blueprint) and then created the world”, we must be able to find a change in the Rashbi’s Torah learning from before he went into the cave and after:

The Talmud tells us that before the Rashbi went into the cave he would ask a question and Reb Pinchas ben Yair (his son in law) would have twelve answers, however after he came out of the cave Reb Pinchas ben Yair would ask a question and the Rashbi would give twenty four answers. In a deeper sense answers are seen as the rectification of a given problem in the world; so the Rashbi gave a double rectification for the world after he came out of the cave.

Translated and adapted by Shalom Goldberg. Taken from Likutei Sichos volume twenty two.