A large fish was caught by the Count’s servants. Gasping for breath, the fish took some comfort in the words he overheard: “What a beauty! The Count will be so happy. After all, the Count loves fish.”

Although he suffered all the way to the castle, the fish consoled himself in the expectation of better things to come, for everyone who saw him exclaimed: “The Count will be so happy. He really loves fish.”

To his surprise, however, when they reached the castle, instead of being placed in a lagoon or, at the very least, in a large tank, he was brought to the kitchen. There again, he heard the people exclaim: “The Count will be so happy. He really loves fish.”

Realizing his fate, the fish cried out to the butcher who had raised his knife over his head: “The Count does not love fish. He is not thinking about me at all. He loves himself!”

Often, when we speak of “loving another person,” what we are really loving is what we can get out of that person or how loving the person makes us feel good.

This story serves as a good introduction to Lag BaOmer, one of Judaism’s days of festive celebration. One of the reasons we celebrate it is that on this day, a plague that killed thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students ended.

What was the reason for that plague? Because, our Sages explain, Rabbi Akiva’s students did not show respect for one another.

That explanation has raised many questions. Rabbi Akiva placed great emphasis on sharing and unity. It was he who taught: “‘Love your fellowman as yourself’ is a great general principle in the Torah.” How then could his students depart from their master’s path and fail to show one another respect?

The answer is that really loving someone means going beyond oneself, not relating to that person for what you can get out of him or her, but for that person’s sake. Even with the best intentions — and we can be sure that Rabbi Akiva’s students had the best intentions — our self-interest can get in our way. Quite possibly, we will fail to show a person — even one whom we are trying to love — proper respect and consideration.

Lag BaOmer

Lag BaOmer also 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 perceived these two areas of knowledge not as distinct, self-contained disciplines, but as one composite unit. The legal aspect (the Talmud) serves as the body and the mystical element (the Zohar), the soul, of one integrated Torah.

This unity within the Torah, which Rabbi Shimon recognized, enabled him to perceive the Divine unity within our material world, and moreover, to see this unity expressed even in the material dimensions of his life.

On Lag BaOmer it is customary for young yeshivah students to leave the halls of study and go out to play in the fields. 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 will often go out to play in the fields, extending the atmosphere of the yeshivah into areas seemingly beyond the usual sphere of Torah study.

Looking to the Horizon

When Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai completed the Zohar, the fundamentaltext of Jewish mysticism, he was told from heaven: “With this text of yours, the Jewish people will leave exile with mercy.” There is a cause and effect relationship here. As people appreciate the mystic truths taught by the Zohar, they will understand the G‑dly nature of their own souls and the souls of the people around them. They will comprehend how every element of existence expresses a different aspect of G‑dliness and how every event that occurs is a manifestation of His providence.

When people begin thinking and living according to these insights, the society that they produce will reflect the prophecies of knowledge, peace, and unity that accompany the era of the Redemption. The Redemption will not merely be an abstract ideal; it will be a motif that ripple by ripple makes its way into the fabric of our lives.