Featured Teaching: Lag B'Omer: Liberation=Balance

Featured Teaching: Lag B’Omer: Liberation=Balance

Joy Amidst Sadness

The period of the counting of the Omer, from Passover to Shavuot, is generally viewed as a time of mourning.  Lag B’omer stands as a refuge of joy amidst a time of subtle sadness. It is a thirty-two-day stretch from Passover to Lag B’omer, where weddings, music and even haircuts are not performed. These days were reserved to mourn, being that it is the period in which 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students died from a mysterious plague. They died, says the Talmud, because “they did not act respectfully towards each other.”

Simplyput, Lag B’Omer, the thirty-third day of counting the Omer, is celebrated because it was at that time when the students ceased dying. More importantly, and a bit ironically, Lag B’Omer is also distinguished as a day of joy since it is the day of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s passing- his yartzeit.

Carob and Water

Rabbi Shimon was a second century sage who was one of five students of Rabbi Akiva who survived the plague. Beyond being a prime student of the illustrious Rabbi Akiva, as he once told his own disciples, “My sons, learn my ways, for my ways are the finest of the finest of Rabbi Akiva’s,” he was a great person in his own right.

Rabbi Shimon was one of the first to openly transmit to his circle the mystical teachings of the Torah, otherwise known today as Kabbalah, and he was the author of its fundamental text, the book of Zohar (Illumination).

In contrast to the other students who perished during this dreadful period, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yachai survived, and went on to live a full life, passing away at a ripe old age. So much so that when he did move on to the other realm it was seen as a time to rejoice, to celebrate the life and work of this noble teacher. The fact that he did complete his life and continued to teach and spread Torah, has tremendous historical and sociological significance, with practical ramifications until this present day. In addition, it was R. Shimon himself who requested of his people to dedicate the day of his passing as “the day of my joy.”

Steps in the Path of Personal Development

As there are no coincidences, everything is divinely orchestrated and organized, what needs to be explored is the connection between his death as a time of joy, and the others students’ deaths as a time to mourn, and their relationship with the counting of the Omer.

The forty-nine days of the counting represent forty-nine steps in the path of personal development. Kabbalistic teachings speak of seven primary emotional Sefirot. These are, chesed/giving, gevurah/ restraint, tiferes/harmony, netzach/ambition, hod/devotion, Yesod/connection and malchus/ receptiveness. Each of these emotional attributes on their own, without a solid dosage from the others creates a reality of tohu — confusion and chaos.

For example, having chesed without gevurah would be to allow a child to do whatever they want, at whatever time they want. Yet, this form of ‘giving’ is counterproductive, as children need borders and discipline to properly flourish. To introduce an order of tikkun -- correction and perfection — there needs to be a blending of the attributes so that each one of the seven contains all the other, hence the number forty-nine, the days of counting and perfecting our emotional state.

The Middle Path

The point of it all is balance, the middle path, the balancing and counter-balancing of our emotional state. The most extreme of our emotions are aroused in a time of tragedy or in a time of comedy, when life throws us something unexpectedly bad, or something surprisingly good. Either way, our instincts are immediately awakened, and most often, we go into auto-pilot and react as opposed to being pro-active.

Of course, the death of an individual is going to stir within us deep emotions of sadness. In fact, the Rambam/ Maimonides refers to a person who does not show sadness in the face of death as an achzari — a cold hearted person. Not only can we mourn, but we are even encouraged to weep and bewail corporal death. The first three days of Shiva are called the days of weeping. So there is certainly a time for sadness.  Sadness, but not depression, which is when you think life is over, but deep sadness. And yet in the midst of a national time of subtle mourning, this being the first 32 days of The Omer, which commemorates the unanticipated death of the students of R. Akiva, there stands Lag B’Omer like a Tree of Life. The joyous day of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s passing comes along and counter-balances our emotional state, and injects a healthy dosage of joy.

It is precisely the mystic par excellence, the illustrious R. Shimon, the one who appears beyond the immediate, who can show us that even in death, an assumed end, with no hope or future, there can be found joy and a time of rejoicing. For what at times seems “bad” at the moment may turn out to be “good” at a later time, and what is perceived as an end in the now may morph into a beginning of a brighter future in the present moment.

Lag B’Omer gives life and hope to the days that are otherwise meant to mourn. On the calendar, Lag B’Omer is on Chai Iyyar – the eighteenth day of the month of Iyyar. Chai is life, for Lag B’Omer gives life to the entire month of Iyyar, and by extension infuses all the days of our life with a healthy measure of joy, optimism, and hopefulness.


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