Lag B’Omer is a Yom Tov which is not from the Torah but from the Rabbis. Lag B’Omer is the Yartzeit of R. Shimon Bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar, mentioned previously.1

In Eretz Yisrael, Lag B’Omer is celebrated with great enthusiasm.

On one of our trips to Israel, we hired a Torah-observant Guide. He was an extraordinary man whose daily routine was to rise at 2:00 am and learn and pray until 10:00 am. From 10:00 am he would work for however much time he needed to accumulate enough to pay rent, food, clothing, school fees and the Shabbos needs. If he had accumulated this amount, he would stop work for the week and spend the remaining days learning.

Our Guide took us to Miron in the foothills outside Tzfat where R. Shimon Bar Yochai is buried. It is a long drive from Jerusalem where we stayed, to Miron. The Guide did not drive. His system was to hire a taxi and then deliver to the passengers, willing or not, a shiur in Torah for the duration of the journey. Any attempts to interrupt to ask questions about the passing landscape were put down with rigid authority.

He told us that in 1948, when Israel was still occupied by British soldiers, a woman had brought her very sick child to Miron to the tomb where R. Shimon Bar Yochai and his son are buried one beside the other. Being a place where wonders take place, many of the sick and the poor congregate in Miron on Lag B’Omer in the hope of miraculous intervention.

Our Guide solemnly attested that, according to the British army personnel, the child died. The hysterical mother placed the child on the grave of R. Shimon Bar Yochai and, to the bewilderment of the Anglo-Saxon army staff, began shrieking at the stone.

Apparently, after being barren for eleven years, she received a blessing for a child on Lag B’Omer when she was previously at Miron. Now she screamed to the stone that she was not leaving until either she died or the child was resuscitated. Any attempt to move her by the distraught soldiers would have been a life risk.

Suddenly, to the shivering spines of the witnesses, the child emitted a low cry. The woman, after slowly composing herself, gathered up her child and walked through the throng of gaping observers. The child has now grown to be a significant scholar learning in the Yeshivah of our Guide. We arrived having sniffed a breath of the atmosphere of Miron and the mists of wonders that swirl around Lag B’Omer.

Rabbi Akiva was a shepherd,2 who at the age of forty could not read the Alef-Beis. He subsequently developed into one of the greatest scholars in the history of Jewish learning. The story goes that he was once watching a stone notched by the steady dripping of water. He concluded that if water could penetrate stone, Torah could penetrate his head. His employer’s daughter heard of his resolve and was so touched by his sincerity to learn that she married him. She encouraged him to go away to learn Torah in a Yeshivah where he remained for twelve years. After his return from the academy, his wife once again agreed that he should again go away to learn. He reappeared a second time with twenty four thousand talmidim (students). When she tried to get near to greet him, his wife was held back.

R. Akiva intervened and publicly told his students that all his Torah, and all the twenty four thousand students belonged to her. From this we learn the rule that the Torah learned by a husband with the permission of his wife is equally credited to the merit of the wife.3

Of the twenty four thousand students, all but five died progressively between Pesach and Shavuos.4 It is one of the great tragedies in the history of Jewish learning that they died in such epidemic proportion, so quickly and in so specific a time. The most distinguished of the students left alive was R. Shimon Bar Yochai, buried at Miron.

R. Shimon Bar Yochai is synonymous with Kabbalah. As mentioned earlier, he wrote the Zohar, its fundamental text, generally unavailable to Jews for one thousand years.

The content of that book forms a basis of Chassidus in general and Chabad Chassidus in particular.

The astonishing life and the influence of R. Shimon Bar Yochai is impossible to exaggerate. Escaping from the Romans5 who had just killed R. Akiva, he and his son hid in a cave for thirteen years. The ground of this cave was made of deep dried sand. The Tzaddikim dug two holes. During the day they lived in the holes, covered to their necks in sand in order to study Torah. When they prayed they emerged and dressed. At the mouth of the cave was a carob tree and a stream of fresh water which sustained them throughout their ordeal.

Lag B’Omer celebrates two connected things. The first is the conclusion of the dying of the students of R. Akiva on Lag B’Omer leaving only five students alive. The second is that it is the date on which R. Shimon Bar Yochai himself subsequently died.

There are very significant differences between the deaths of these two giants. R. Akiva died a martyr’s death. It had been ordered by the Romans that no Torah was to be learned in public. R. Akiva ignored this edict and, when detected, was tortured to death by the Romans, combed with combs of red hot metal. He died, although in horrible pain, in a state of ecstasy having fulfilled all the mitzvos including that of dying a martyr’s death to glorify the Name of G‑d.6 R. Shimon Bar Yochai, on the other hand, died quietly and requested prior to his death that on his Yartzeit, the Jewish world should rejoice greatly.

When a Tzaddik dies, his life purpose of learning Torah and doing mitzvos is realized, bringing him to a state of perfection.7

Children learn that the twenty four thousand talmidim of R. Akiva, on the other hand, died because of lack of mutual respect which eclipsed their greatness in learning. Children learn that, because Hashem was displeased with the service of the talmidim, they died.

Consider this however; we are talking of twenty four thousand scholars, the lowest in learning of whom was very learned in his own right. These men who had spent up to twenty years with R. Akiva, often separated from their wives and children, were absorbed in building a spiritual ladder to G‑d and devoting their whole existence to the precipitation of Moshiach.

Yet this army of Torah giants are put to death because they had no mutual respect! How can this be? Since, as we have seen, the fundamental teaching of R. Akiva was to love your fellow Jew as yourself,8 we can be sure that the twenty four thousand talmidim knew this notion well. How can it be therefore that they did not have any respect for each other?

A dog can be taught to walk to heel by repeating the instruction over and over again until the dog understands it. There are however two ways of repeating the instruction. One person functioning at the level of chesed (kindness), whenever the dog walks to heel, will fall all over the dog, pat it, praise it and reward it. The dog learns through positive reinforcement. The other, functioning at the level of gevurah (strength or strictness), will kick and punish the dog whenever it does not walk to heel. This dog will learn in order to avoid being punished. Both methods are legitimate routes to the same achievement.

As R. Akiva taught his students, each converted the knowledge to their own personal mental set. Each valuing so greatly his teaching and each being of such a lofty level they could not tolerate any different approach. One man heard R. Akiva teaching Chesed, another heard gevurah. Each then believed the other to be missing something and so each man’s mission became the endeavor to convince the other of his lack, and vice versa.9

There is a notion in Chassidus of mashpia (giver) and mekabel (receiver). Mashpia refers to the one giving over and mekabel means the one receiving. A physical manifestation of this spiritual notion is man and woman. When man and woman procreate, man is the mashpia and woman is the mekabel. This process exists throughout creation. In education, the teacher is mashpia, the student the mekabel. For the current of life to flow, both must be there; without one, there is sterility.

Everyone of R. Akiva’s Chassidim was a mashpia and nobody a mekabel. None had an interest in listening to each other. All believed they had listened to R. Akiva. Each insisted on their own way and each meant well; but life’s fulfillment requires a man to be a mekabel as well as a mashpia.

Additionally, the students suffered a further and deeper disability.10 It is an important secret of Torah to return to the physical after rising to the spiritual. As we shall see, R. Akiva had perfected this.

Four Tzaddikim entered Pardes (heaven) and gazed upon all the secrets of Torah. Three of them were harmed, only R. Akiva returned in peace.11 Why? Three of them were able to rise but not return. R. Akiva climbed with a view that the rise would be followed by a return. He would return and bring back what he experienced there to benefit the world at its physical level.

A flight to Hashem without a return to the physical is of no use. Mankind are not intended to be angels. Angels fly spiritually, constantly. Animals look only to eat, drink and escape every inconvenience. The greatness of humanity in general, and neshomos in particular, is our obligation for both flight and food. We must penetrate heaven but bring that information back to the mundane physical to make a dwelling place for G‑d on Earth. To simply climb into heaven and stay there is to abandon our responsibility to the physical. For that there is no reason for a neshomah to descend into a body. It could always have remained in its spiritual plane.

That was the punishment of the students of R. Akiva. Each man, a mashpia, wanted to rise alone to drink the nectars of the secrets of the universe. To be a mekabel, grounding the learning in physicality eluded them!

All the greatness of being a talmid of R. Akiva was thus nullified and led only to death.

R. Shimon Bar Yochai survived because of his devotion to the return. No matter what dizzying heights he and his son scaled from their holes in the sand, they brought back the treasures of those visions and translated them into practical service, both for themselves and for all Israel.

This is what we celebrate in joy on Lag B’Omer; the fruits of his perceptions are dug back into the ground of practical observance. The physical is infused with the spiritual.

The fruits of those visions still wave gently in the breezes of Miron.