Fusing the Material with the Spiritual

Lag BaOmer commemorates the passing of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, one of the foremost sages of the Talmud and author of the Zohar, the primary text of the Kabbalah. Rabbi Shimon’s knowledge extended from the exoteric, legal realm of the Torah, to its deepest mystical secrets. Moreover, he was uniquely able to perceive these two areas of knowledge not as distinct, self-contained disciplines, but as one composite unit, the legal aspect being the body and the mystical element the soul of one integrated Torah.1

This unity within the Torah which Rabbi Shimon recog­nized enabled him to perceive the Divine unity within our material world, and moreover, to have this unity expressed in actual fact as well as in the abstract. He understood Torah study as all-encompassing, able to influence and control every aspect of our lives.

Thus the Zohar relates2 that Eretz Yisrael once suffered a severe drought. When the Jews appealed to Rabbi Shimon for help, he expounded the verse,3 “How good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together” — and it began to rain.

In the same vein, the Midrash relates4 that one of Rabbi Shimon’s students returned to Eretz Yisrael after acquiring wealth in foreign lands. Seeing that some of his other stu­dents grew envious, Rabbi Shimon led them to a valley and called out, “Valley, valley, fill up with gold coins,” and it did. “Anyone who wants may take,” declared Rabbi Shimon, “but he should know that he is taking from his portion in the World to Come.”

Rabbi Shimon was able to make the spiritual wealth of the World to Come manifest as material wealth in this world.

Not a Departure, but an Extension

On Lag BaOmer, we seek to emulate this quality of Rabbi Shimon’s. On this day, it is customary for young yeshivah stu­dents to leave the halls of study and go out to the fields.5 The intent of this custom is obviously not to mark Rabbi Shimon’s yahrzeit by taking a vacation from the study of Torah, but rather, to bring the yeshivah out into the fields. Rabbi Shimon was able to unite the deepest mystical elements of the Torah with the natural elements of the world. In emulation of him, children extend the atmosphere of the yeshivah to encompass even the field, an area seemingly beyond the realm of Torah.

An All-Encompassing Commitment

Rabbi Shimon taught that the underlying unity of Torah and worldliness should be expressed every day, not only once a year. In light of this, we can understand a classic Talmudic debate6 on the verse,7 “This Torah scroll shall not depart from your mouth.”

Rabbi Yishmael maintains that the verse cannot be taken literally; rather, as much time as possible should be devoted to Torah study, but part of one’s time should be devoted to earning a livelihood. Rabbi Shimon, however, argues that the verse should be taken at face value. A person should devote all of his time and effort to Torah study, leaving it to G‑d to ensure that his material needs will be met.

Rabbi Shimon was true to his own teachings. The Talmud 8 says of him, Toraso umanuso — “His profession was Torah.” He devoted himself solely to Torah study, remaining com­pletely uninvolved in worldly concerns.

Making the Most of Our Moments

Is Rabbi Shimon’s view relevant to us? Summing up the debate, the Talmud notes:9 “Many followed the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael and were successful; others followed the opinion of Rabbi Shimon and were not successful.” Although Rabbi Shimon himself was able to function at this exalted level, it appears to be beyond the grasp of most people.10 In fact, our Rabbis state11 that the concept of Toraso umanuso as exemplified by Rabbi Shimon no longer exists.

How, then, are we to understand his teaching? Our Sages note12 that the Torah was given only to those — i.e., the Jews in the wilderness — who ate manna. This statement is not intended to limit the number of people who have access to Torah study; it aims, instead, to teach us how we should ap­proach it.

While our ancestors received their food from heaven, they did not have to worry about earning a living. With all their needs miraculously provided for, they were able to concen­trate their energies on spiritual growth alone. We, by con­trast, do not enjoy overt miracles, and must therefore spend a certain amount of time involved with worldly concerns. Nonetheless, during the time we study Torah, all of our cares and worries, all our concern for material affairs, should be set aside. In this manner, during the time we have designated for Torah study, we can approach the level of “those who ate manna,” and emulate Rabbi Shimon’s state of Toraso umanuso.

The Alter Rebbe explains13 that fulfilling a mitzvah estab­lishes an eternal union with the Divine. Thus, studying Torah even briefly with the undivided attentiveness of “those who ate manna,” affirms us in a timeless bond with G‑d at the level of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Even after such study, when a person turns his attention to his material concerns, this inner connection is maintained.

In Preparation for the Ultimate Unity

In the Era of the Redemption, the fusion between the material and the spiritual exemplified by Rabbi Shimon will be reflected throughout the world. And through spreading Rabbi Shimon’s teachings, the coming of the Redemption can be hastened. As the Raaya Mehemna states:14 “Because even­tually the Jewish people will taste of the Tree of Life, which is the Book of the Zohar, they will go out of exile with it, in mercy.” May this take place speedily in our days.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. III, Lag BaOmer; the Sichos of Lag BaOmer, 5733