Although ecstatic yearning for G‑d is a lofty ideal, the ultimate service of a Jew is to introduce G‑dliness into the world. Rashbi, whose Yartzeit is on Lag BaOmer, was the supreme embodiment of this type of service. A mystic whose entire life was Torah, he simultaneously used his knowledge to benefit the world.

Lag BaOmer, the thirty-third day of the Omer,1 is a joyous festival for Jewry.2 There are two principal reasons for this:

(1) Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest teachers in Israel, had twenty four thousand disciples. Because they did not show the proper respect and honor to each other, they all died. This tragedy ended on Lag BaOmer and thus this day has been celebrated by Jews ever since.3

(2) Lag BaOmer marks the Yartzeit, anniversary of passing, of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi),4 the foremost sage of his time and author of the Zohar, the fundamental text of Kabbalah. A Yartzeit is a festive occasion, for in Judaism, the soul is primary and the body secondary. Life is not mere physical existence. True life is Torah and mitzvos, service to G‑d5 — and they are eternal. On a Yartzeit of a tzaddik, a completely righteous person, the spiritual endeavors of his lifetime are elevated to the highest of levels, thereby enabling him to reach perfection.6 A Yartzeit is thus a joyous time. Rashbi, particularly, instructed all Jews of all generations to celebrate his Yartzeit with “great joy.”7

These two reasons for celebrating Lag BaOmer are not unrelated.8 Rashbi was one of the five great disciples of Rabbi Akiva who remained alive, and, tutored by Rabbi Akiva, “they revived the Torah at that time.”9 Because Rashbi’s service to G‑d was what the service of the other twenty four thousand disciples should have been, his Yartzeit, when his service reaches perfection, is on the day when the disciples ceased to die.

Differences in Service

What was the difference in their services?

Rabbi Akiva taught10 that the command, “You shall love your fellow as yourself” is “a great principle in Torah.” Yet his disciples died because they did not show the proper respect and honor to each other — the antithesis of loving your fellow. Did not the disciples know of their master’s teaching?

However, it is precisely because they were such fervent disciples that they failed to accord proper respect to each other.11 No two people are alike, and each disciple interpreted his master’s teachings commensurate with his individual intellect and character.12 Accordingly, each disciple served G‑d in a different way: one would lay emphasis on serving G‑d with love and another would stress service with awe. So thoroughly immersed was each in his own approach that any other mode of service appeared deficient.

Because they were fervent disciples of Rabbi Akiva who emphasized love of a fellow Jew, each was not content to merely advance in his own service to G‑d. Convinced that his mode of service was the only totally correct one, he endeavored to influence his fellow disciples to adopt his approach.

But, engaged in his own mode of service, no disciple was ready to accept another’s. As sincere men acting candidly and honestly, and believing that the others’ modes of service were imperfect, no disciple could properly respect another.

This zealousness and single-minded tenacity in service to G‑d had its roots in Rabbi Akiva’s service. Rabbi Akiva, the Talmud relates,13 yearned all his life to sanctify G‑d’s Name even to the point of martyrdom. Willingness to sacrifice — mesirus nefesh — is an ideal that totally encompasses a person: every part of a person, every faculty of the soul, is in a state of mesirus nefesh.

Rabbi Akiva’s disciples absorbed this ideal of mesirus nefesh, and it was reflected in their conduct. Every aspect of their service to G‑d, their entire existence, was permeated with mesirus nefesh. Thus, their total absorption in their particular mode of service precluded any other approach.

Mesirus Nefesh is Not Enough

Lofty though such an attitude may be, it is not enough. The ideal of mesirus nefesh of itself can lead one to such ecstatic yearning for G‑d that one “leaves” the world to come nearer to G‑d; the soul expires. While this is an extremely lofty achievement for the person, it misses the ultimate goal of service to G‑d, which is to introduce G‑dliness into the world.14 The purpose of a Jew’s service is to make this corporeal world a dwelling place for G‑d, to make the physical a receptacle for the Divine. This purpose is not served by leaving the world behind in one’s desire for union with G‑d. The reverse is true: this desire must be utilized to infuse greater zealousness in carrying out the primary mission of introducing G‑dliness into the world.

Thus, the Talmud notes, the twenty four thousand disciples of Rabbi Akiva died because they did not treat each other with respect, and “the world was desolate.”15 Because their service to G‑d was only in the realm of mesirus nefesh, the world was devoid of G‑dliness.

The five disciples who remained alive, on the other hand, directed their mesirus nefesh — absorbed from their mentor — into improving the world: “They revived the Torah at that time.”16 They did not allow their ecstatic longing for G‑d to distract them from the mission of bringing G‑dliness into a spiritually parched world. Instead, that very longing led them to greater efforts to fulfill G‑d’s will of making this world a fit dwelling place for the Divine Presence.

Rashbi was the epitome of this type of service. The author of the Zohar, the mystic par excellence, a giant even among that generation of giants, his longing for G‑d was certainly no less than that of his colleagues. Indeed, his colleagues testified that “Who is the ‘face of the L‑rd?’ — none other than Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.”17 Rashbi, of all the sages of that time, was closest to G‑d, to the extent that, as he himself declared, “I am bound to You with one knot.”18

Furthermore, the Talmud designates Rashbi as one “whose Torah is his sole occupation,”19 meaning that he was removed from worldly concerns and his entire interest was the Torah. Moreover, hunted by the Romans, he and his son were forced to remain alone in a cave for thirteen years.20

Heal the world

Yet it was specifically Rashbi who stressed that it is insufficient to attain a lofty personal level, but one must also seek to improve others. When he and his son R. Elazar were finally able to leave the cave, R. Elazar was aghast at the low spiritual state of the world. He was on such a lofty plane that he could not accept people’s preoccupation with material matters, and whatever he cast his eyes upon was destroyed. But, relates the Talmud, “wherever R. Elazar destroyed, Rabbi Shimon healed.”21

Rashbi was on a loftier level than his son. Yet he realized that the attainment of such levels should not lead one to spurn the world but the reverse: it should inspire one to help the world, to bring G‑dliness to those less fortunate. The world cannot be left “desolate.”

It was that very stay in the cave — which enabled Rashbi to attain such lofty heights22 — that afterwards led him to actively seek to help others. The first thing he did upon leaving the cave was to ask: “Is there anything that requires amending?”23

Crown of a good name

Thus we find that Rabbi Shimon stated:24 “There are three crowns — the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship; but the crown of a good name surpasses them all.” “A good name” means the name a person acquires through good deeds. Rashbi, whose Torah was his sole occupation, surely had the “crown of Torah.” Nevertheless, it is he who stresses that the ultimate goal of Torah study is achieved when one’s learning, one’s spiritual achievements, leads to aiding others to do likewise. When one’s yearning for G‑d is not just out of personal fulfillment, but stems from the desire to fulfill G‑d’s will — to make this physical world a dwelling place for Him — that very yearning is the spur to utilize one’s achievements to help others. To personally come close to G‑d is noble indeed; nobler still is to help others do the same. The world must be made a receptacle for the Divine.25

Emulating Rashbi

This is the lesson from Lag BaOmer, the day Rabbi Akiva’s disciples ceased dying and the Yartzeit of Rashbi. Because Rashbi’s service was the converse of that which caused the disciples to die, his Yartzeit — when his works attain perfection — is the same day as when Rabbi Akiva’s disciples ceased to die. Rashbi, who attained the closest bond with G‑d, demonstrated that true service is not only to bring oneself closer to G‑dliness but to bring G‑dliness to the world.

The highest expression of this occurred on Lag BaOmer itself. The Zohar relates26 that Rashbi, on the day of his passing, not only personally reached the loftiest understanding of the Torah’s secrets,27 but revealed to his disciples “holy words that were unrevealed until then.” This was the path he trod all his life. Other sages of his time learned the Torah’s mysteries but did not teach them to others.28 Rashbi took what until then were “secrets” and revealed them.

To Rashbi, the revealed Torah, the hidden Torah, and the world, were all one. When Eretz Yisroel suffered a severe drought, Rashbi caused rain to fall by reciting Torah.29 For one “whose Torah was his occupation,” and who simultaneously knew of the importance of using Torah for the world, there could be no distinction between the world and G‑dliness.

We can emulate his example.30 When we study Torah, we should make it our sole occupation — as did Rashbi.31 When we perform a mitzvah, we establish a timeless bond with G‑d — as did Rashbi. When we help disseminate Torah and Chassidus, we are introducing G‑dliness into the world — as did Rashbi. And by following the example of Rashbi, we bring the Messianic Era, as the Zohar states:32 “In the time to come Israel will taste of the tree of life, which is the book of the Zohar, and through it they will leave their exile with mercy.”

Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXII, pp. 138-142; Vol. XVII, pp. 303-312