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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Lag B’Omer–Mystical Fires

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By: Chaya Sora Jungreis-Gertzulin

Mikrah – coincidence. But we know that there are no coincidences in life. That all is b’yad HaShem – in HaShem’s hand. In fact, our rabbis teach that the word mikrah alludes to that very idea.

The Hebrew letters of mikrah, מ-mem, ק-kuf, ר-reish, ה-hay, can be rearranged to form the phrase rak m’HaShem – meaning only from HaShem. (רק -reish/kuf, מה׳ -mem/ hay).

While it may not always be visible to us, there is a reason and purpose for all that transpires. Rak m’HaShem – It’s all part of HaShem’s master plan.

Lag B’Omer. The day the devastating plague ended, and the students of Rabbi Akiva ceased dying. Years later, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai passes away on Lag B’Omer. Coincidence or not?

Following the horrific loss of so many thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students, there was a fear amongst the nation of how will the chain of Torah learning continue. With so many talmidei chachomim gone, who will be the Torah leaders of the next generation?

Rabbi Akiva started teaching once again. Amongst his new students was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son Rabbi Elazar.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, also known as Rashbi, (an acronym of the first letters of his name) lived during the hard times of Roman rule. Once, while conversing with other Torah sages, Rabbi Shimon criticized the Roman leaders. Unbeknownst to him, his words were overheard and repeated to the Roman authorities.

Rashbi made it onto the Roman’s “Most Wanted List”. He was viewed as an enemy, and a death sentence was decreed upon him.

In fear for his life, Rabbi Shimon, together with his son hid out in a cave. Miraculously, a carob tree grew outside the cave, and a stream flowed alongside it. Rashbi and his son subsisted on the fruit of the carob and the water from the stream. Gifts from HaShem.

They spent their days and nights fully immersed in Torah study. It was during this time that Rashbi authored the Zohar, a book of Jewish mystical thought known as Kabbalah. Zohar means “shining light”, for it revealed many Torah secrets, shedding light and understanding to whomever studied its holy words.

After twelve years in the cave, Eliyahu HaNavi appeared to them, bearing news that the Roman emperor had passed away, and the decree against Rashbi was lifted. It was time to emerge from hiding, and re-enter society.

As they traveled home, they came across a farmer who was busy tending to his field. Coming from so many years of living a spiritual existence, they couldn’t comprehend how one could be involved with the mundane aspects of life. Rabbi Shimon glared at the farmer; it was as if daggers of fire emanated from his eyes. Fires that “zapped” whatever they were focused on, totally consuming them.

A Heavenly voice called out to Rabbi Shimon, “Do you want to destroy My world? Go back to the cave. The world cannot exist with your holiness”.

Rabbi Shimon and his son returned to the cave for another year. Besides being immersed in Torah study, it was a year of working on acceptance and love for every man. A year of concentrating on the lessons of Rabbi Akiva, to “love your fellow as yourself”. It was only then that the father and son were ready to emerge from the cave a second time.

It was an Erev Shabbos, and they encountered a man carrying two bundles of hadassim, myrtle branches. When Rabbi Shimon inquired as to its purpose, the man replied that it was in honor of the Shabbos. One bundle for the commandment of “shomor”–to keep the Shabbos holy, and the second for “zachor”–to remember the holy Shabbos.

Rabbi Shimon lifted his head upward and proclaimed, “HaShem, look at Your beloved people. Look how they prepare for and treasure the holy Shabbos.”

To this very day, Am Yisroel has a special love for the Holy Shabbos. I think of the busy bakeries, groceries and flower stands on Fridays. Men, women and children carrying their Shabbos “bundles”. Like Rabbi Shimon, we too, can say to HaShem, “Look how precious the mitzvos are to Your children”.

The plague which consumed Rabbi Akiva’s students ended on Lag B’Omer. Rabbi Shimon’s yahrtzeit is on Lag B’Omer. No coincidence at all.

We have come full circle. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai emerged from the cave with a new appreciation for his fellow. The ability to see the “tzelem Elokim”, the Divine spark within each and every soul. To connect to others with love, appreciation, acceptance and tolerance.

Rabbi Shimon lived his life according to the teachings of his beloved Rebbi, Rabbi Akiva. Through his words and actions, Rabbi Shimon brought tikun, merit and repair, to the lives of the many students of Rabbi Akiva who perished.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai spent his last hours on this world teaching Torah, surrounded by his students. The sun began to set. The light in the room began to dim. With his last vestiges of strength, Rabbi Shimon continued teaching. As the room was getting darker, the students wrote faster and faster, not wanting to miss any of his holy words.

It was then that a miraculous fire appeared outside Rabbi Shimon’s home, illuminating the room with its mystical light. Rabbi Shimon’s students were able to continue writing, enabling them to keep his holy teachings alive midor l’dor, for future generations.

But then, just as it came, the fire left, and the soul of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yocahi returned to its Creator.

At the entrance way to Rashbi’s kever, his burial place in Meron, there is an arch with the words “Ki lo sishochach mipi zaroh, For it (the Torah) will not be forgotten from His children” (Devarim 31:21). A promise that regardless of any difficulties or challenges, the Torah will never be forgotten. Indeed, this passage is connected to Rabbi Shimon, with the last letters of each word spelling out the name Yochai.

Before his death, Rabbi Shimon instructed his students to see his yahrtzeit as a Yom Hillula, a day of celebration. He referred to his passing as “his happiness”. He felt fulfilled as he was preparing to face his Maker, for during his lifetime, he came to understand the depths of Torah wisdom.

Sadly, the ongoing rocket and missile attacks in the north of Israel by Hezbollah have claimed another “victim”, as the annual Lag B’Omer celebrations in Meron have been canceled.

While the massive gathering in Meron will not be happening, tens, or even hundreds of thousands of Jews will commemorate Rabbi Shimon’s yahrtzeit with hadlokas, bonfires throughout the world.

The memory and teachings of Rashbi live on. Lessons of achdus, unity and understanding, seeing the beauty in each and every individual. Lessons of the primacy of Torah study. Lessons that will, b’ezras HaShem lead us to the ultimate celebration with the coming of Moshiach, speedily, in our days.

Shabbat Shalom!

Chaya Sora

Chaya Sora can be reached at [email protected]

This article was written L’zecher Nishmas/In Memory Of HaRav Meshulem ben HaRav Osher Anshil HaLevi, zt”l and Rebbetzin Esther bas HaRav Avraham HaLevi, zt”l

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