1. Today is Erev Lag B’Omer. The Alter Rebbe’s Siddur notes that during Minchah on Erev Lag B’Omer, no Tachnun is said. On Shabbos, the prayer ‘Tzidkoscha Tzedek’ is also omitted. Hence, we can see that the celebration of Lag B’Omer begins on the afternoon prior to it.1

Lag B’Omer is particularly connected with R. Shimon bar Yochai. There are two aspects to this connection: first, in regard to his status as one of R. Akiva’s students and second, in regard to his own unique characteristics.

The Talmud declares that R. Akiva had 24,000 students who passed away during Sefiras HaOmer because they did not show proper respect towards each other. The plague ended on Lag B’Omer. This is difficult to understand. The Torah rarely expresses criticism of an individual, as our sages commented, “The Torah did not speak in a derogatory manner even about an impure animal.” If so, why does the Talmud teach us about the faults of R. Akiva’s students?

The concept can be explained as follows: Each one of R. Akiva’s students had reached the summit of his particular path of service to G‑d. Each had developed a connection to G‑d in a unique personal manner; internalizing this path of service so thoroughly that it permeated his entire existence. He could not conceive that another path of service could be correct. Therefore, they did not show proper respect to their colleagues. The lack of respect came from honesty. On the verse which describes how Joseph’s brothers “could not speak peaceably to him,” Rashi comments, “From their criticism, we can learn their praise. They did not speak one way with their mouth and another with their heart.” Similarly R. Akiva’s students were so involved with their own path of service, with transcending the limitations of the world and connecting themselves to G‑d, that they could not appreciate the value of another path.2 They were concerned with their spiritual fulfillment. As such, they turned away from life in the world and hence could not relate to a different path of service.

A similar concept is connected to the service of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu who died “as they drew close before G‑d.” Their service represented a high level of devotion, a rung so elevated that it surpassed the level of Moshe and Aharon.3 Nevertheless, their service was considered a sin because it ignored the elevation and refinement of the world. Similarly, in regard to the service of R. Akiva’s students the Talmud declares, “The world was desolate,” i.e. despite the great heights they had reached in connection to G‑d, they had not elevated the world.

The students of R. Akiva who survived did so because their service placed the emphasis on the refinement of the world. This change is connected with Lag B’Omer because this is when the plague ended.

The above is related to R. Shimon bar Yochai since he belonged to the second category of R. Akiva’s students. He himself further emphasized this quality in his own service. The Talmud relates that after R. Shimon and his son R. Eliezer emerged following their thirteen year ordeal hiding in the cave, R. Eliezer “destroyed” portions of the world because people “forsook eternal life and engaged in temporary life” (they occupied themselves with material affairs rather than the study of Torah). “Wherever R. Eliezer destroyed, R. Shimon healed.” R. Eliezer was on a high spiritual level, as R. Shimon declared, “I have seen superior men (lit. men of ascent) and they are few... if they are two, they are myself and my son.”4 Nevertheless, R. Shimon achieved greater heights: he “healed” (i.e. was involved with the refinement of) the world.

Through our work in refining the world we become “G‑d’s partner in creation.” Even though the creation of the world was ex nihilo (something from absolute nothingness), an act that by definition cannot be equaled by the achievements of man, a finite creation,5 we still have the potential to become full partners in creation.

This concept can be explained in terms of the statement of our sages, “The north side (of the world) is not enclothed.” Why, if someone were to say, “I am a G‑d,” as Pharaoh declared, “The river is mine and I made it,” we can tell him, “Go finish the enclosure of the world. Seal the north side.” Nevertheless, a Jew through his service does have the potential to “seal the north side.” The phrase “for the increase of the realm” — L’Marbeh HaMisrah — which refers to Moshiach is written with a closed Mem. (Generally, a closed Mem is only used at the end of a word.) An opening in a letter reveals a lack of completion. In Messianic times, even those places which by nature are left uncompleted, for example the closing of the letter Mem or the closing of the north side, will attain fulfillment.

The same concept is brought out by the statement of the Medrash on the verse, “All His work which G‑d in creating made.” Literally that verse could be interpreted, “All His work which G‑d created to make” — the Medrash comments, “to make — to fix.” G‑d had created the world in a manner in which it can be fixed by the Jews’ service.6

R. Akiva’s later students, particularly R. Shimon bar Yochai, emphasized an even higher rung, a service above the elevation of the world. They were involved in the transmission of G‑dly influence in the world.

The difference between their service and the service of elevation can be explained in terms of the difference between Torah study and prayer. Prayer represents the service of elevation, going beyond one’s self and returning to one’s source. Torah draws down G‑dly influence into the world. This represents a higher level.

On the surface, this statement is difficult to understand. Prayer is a process in which the soul rises above itself and connects to G‑d. The Hebrew word for prayer — Tefillah — is derived from the root ‘Tofal,’ meaning connection. The Baal Shem Tov commented that it is a wonder how a Jew can remain alive after prayer. Prayer is such an all encompassing experience, he should have expired. Given this, how can Torah study be above the level of prayer? The answer is that since a Jew must always “proceed higher in holy matters,” even though through prayer he has reached a very high level, he must proceed through Torah study to a higher rung.

The same principle applies in regard to the two categories of students of R. Akiva. R. Akiva placed a stress on the service of Mesirus Nefesh — self sacrifice. Throughout his life, he sought this service.7 Hence, his first category of students focused on the quality of self transcendence. However, R. Akiva also had the ability to transmit G‑dliness into the world. The Talmud (Chagigah 14b) states that four sages entered into a mystic experience; three suffered serious consequences, and only R. Akiva “entered in peace and went out in peace.” In his case, both the elevation above the world and also the return to the world were “in peace,” in a state of fulfillment. The second category of students focused on this category. They brought the quality of peace into the world. This is accomplished through the service of Torah study, as the Book of Proverbs declares, “Its ways are pleasant ways and all its paths are peace.” Similarly, the Rambam writes that the Torah was given to establish peace in the world.

These two types of service also dominated two different periods of R. Shimon bar Yochai’s life. During the thirteen years he spent in the cave, he was involved with the transcendence of the material. Even in regard to the performance of Mitzvos, he was forced to perform certain Mitzvos — e.g. Matzah — on the spiritual plane and not through actually eating Matzah. When he left the cave, he proceeded to a higher level: he fulfilled Mitzvos in deed and action. The Talmud Yerushalmi declares that even though “Torah was his profession,” R. Shimon stopped studying to construct a Sukkah.8

In terms of the above, we can explain the difference between Erev Lag B’Omer and Lag B’Omer itself. Erev Lag B’Omer represents the service of elevation; Lag B’Omer represents the transmission of influence into the world, the service of R. Shimon and the second category of R. Akiva’s students. This concept can be seen in the dates of these occasions. Erev Lag B’Omer falls on the 17th of Iyar. In Gematria, Torah numerology, 17 equals Tov — good. Lag B’Omer falls on the 18th of Iyar. In Gematria 18 equals Chai — life. The Rebbeim have explained that Chai Elul (which commemorates the birthday of the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe) brings life into the service of Elul. Similarly, Chai Iyar, Lag B’Omer, brings life into the service of Iyar.

The service during the month of Iyar is that of “Is-hopchah,” the transformation of the material world.9 The seventeenth of the month represents a state of goodness, fulfillment of that service. However, a higher level is possible. When G‑d created the world, “He saw that it was good,” He created man in order to elevate the world to an even higher level. That level is alluded to in the fact that Lag B’Omer falls out on Chai Iyar.

The second category of students received from R. Akiva the quality of “entering in peace and going out in peace.” The uniqueness of that service can be explained by a closer examination of this expression. On the surface, all four entered in peace. However, the fact that R. Akiva left in peace, that he was able to return and draw his spiritual service into the physical world, revealed that his entry was also on a higher level. If one’s elevation and striving for G‑dliness cannot be expressed within the world, then it is lacking. The ultimate state of fulfillment is to draw “peace” down into the world.

Though there were five (or seven, according to many Talmudic references) students in the second category, the one who stood out as the epitome of this service was R. Shimon. He reached the ultimate of connection to G‑d, as the Zohar declares, “With one knot I am tied to You.” Yet, he was able to draw down the secrets of Torah into Niglah (the revealed, exoteric realm of Torah study) and also into the world to the point where “even the children of the world” studied the secrets of Torah. Thus, he “entered in peace” i.e. reached the highest levels and “went out in peace,” drew them down into the world.

This same concept is reflected in the celebration of Lag B’Omer. On one hand, Lag B’Omer is a day of great joy.10 Simultaneously, this joy is drawn down into the world in a manner which “heals.”

2. The above applies to Erev Lag B’Omer every year. This year, Erev Lag B’Omer falls on Shabbos. All the days of the week are blessed from the preceding Shabbos. This year there is no separation between Lag B’Omer and the Shabbos which blesses it.

In general, one cannot prepare for the activities of the coming week on Shabbos. “Shabbos cannot prepare for a weekday.” However, one is allowed to call attention to the needs of the community on Shabbos. (This is particularly true when the event in question occurs on Sunday, and there is no time in between.) In doing so, one does not minimize the holiness of Shabbos. On the contrary, one adds to the fulfillment of Shabbos. Just as the blessing which Shabbos brings to the days of the week enhances the power of Shabbos, so too, does the announcement of the community needs.

When Lag B’Omer comes directly after Shabbos, it adds to the eagerness with which we would prepare for it. There is a great difference between the excitement about something that will take place directly after the preparation and something that will occur sometime later.11 Hence, the calling of attention to the needs of Lag B’Omer of this year will be stronger than usual and this will lead to greater involvement in those activities.

This brings us to another concept. On Shabbos, and likewise on Lag B’Omer, we do not recite Tachnun. The refraining from this recitation results from the fact that the essential holiness of the day brings about the same effects as would have been achieved through reciting Tachnun. Hence, in a year such as the present, there is a greater period of time in which the service of Tachnun is achieved by spiritual influences above man’s potential. This, in turn, strengthens the service of Lag B’Omer itself.

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3. There is also a lesson that can be learned from Parshas Emor. This portion has a unique connection with children as emphasized by our sages’ comment on its first verse: “To warn adults regarding children.” There is also a clear connection between Parshas Emor and Lag B’Omer. The Zohar quotes R. Shimon as saying, “I am seeing now what has not been seen by any man from the day Moshe ascended to Mt. Sinai the second time (to receive the second tablets).” The second tablets were given on Yom Kippur, the celebration of which is specifically mentioned in Parshas Emor. Also, since R. Shimon’s service was involved in bringing everything into revelation, we can conclude that R. Shimon is also related to the celebration of Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah, the day on which the spiritual influences of Yom Kippur are revealed. The celebration of these days is also described in Parshas Emor. Since Emor is related to Jewish children and also to R. Shimon bar Yochai, it follows that there must be an effort to communicate the teachings of R. Shimon bar Yochai, the inner aspects of Torah, even to children. Through these efforts the adults will also benefit: “And they that are wise, shall shine as the splendor of the firmament” with this work of yours... through which they will leave this exile with mercy” (Tanya, Iggeres Hakodesh Ch. 26).

4. Before it was mentioned that children must be connected with the teachings of R. Shimon bar Yochai. The Zohar teaches that in the time before Moshiach’s coming, “In the sixth century of the sixth millennium, the portals of wisdom above, and the fountains of wisdom below will be opened.” The inner secrets of Torah will be spread throughout the world and “even the children of the world” will know “hidden wisdom.” R. Shimon was able to communicate the secrets of Torah even to “children of the world” i.e. worldly children, those outside the realm of Torah.

This is the reason why lately I have stressed the importance of being involved with children, not only those children that receive a kosher education, but even “children of the world” — those who are found in the streets. All four sons — not only the wise, but also the wicked, the simple, and the one who didn’t know — attended the Seder and furthermore, “the Torah spoke about four sons.” The Torah spoke about all four sons of Pesach, confident that afterwards we would continue to work with these children throughout the year.

The involvement with the children of the world is related to the Talmud’s statement, (B. Metzia 85a), “He who teaches Torah to the son of an ‘am ha-aretz’, even if the Holy One, blessed be He, makes a decree, He annuls it for his sake.” Furthermore, when he makes a decree, then “the righteous will decree and G‑d will fulfill it.” If someone wants his wishes fulfilled, whether they be for his own personal benefit or for that of the entire Jewish people, he should involve himself with the education of the children of ‘amai ha-aretz.’ Furthermore, such efforts have the power to save him from suffering,12 even the suffering of ‘Chevlai Moshiach.’ Surely, everyone has already taken part in these activities,13 but more effort is necessary. This is particularly true regarding the parade that was organized to commemorate the rejoicing of R. Shimon bar Yochai. Even though only a few hours remain until Lag B’Omer, still more work can be done, and therefore more success can be achieved. Now is the time for “Grab and eat, Grab and drink”; at present in the time of ‘Ikvos of Moshiach’ (the generation before Moshiach), there are no limitations of time. We can “acquire our world in one hour.”14

There are certain particular points that are relevant to the Lag B’Omer parade. The parade should include “the three pillars on which the world stands: Torah, Avodah (service of G‑d) —which can be performed through the saying of blessings — and deeds of kindness.” It should at least involve the two kinds of service, “Zion will be redeemed by judgment (Torah study) and those who return to her by Tzedakah.”

Also, according to the principle, “The jealousy of scribes increase wisdom” (B. Basra 21a), it is proper that an essay contest be held; and for the children to submit their descriptions of the parade and the Torah activities that occurred. Separate contests should be held for boys and for girls. In order to facilitate the awarding of the prizes, it is proper for each child to submit their essay to their own school and the principal of each school will pick the best essays from every class and submit them to the central office. This should also be done in all other places where a Lag B’Omer parade or assembly is being held.

Everything should have a continued effort. Therefore, it would be appropriate to print the essays in a book.15 It should be aesthetically pleasing in all aspects: e.g. binding. This, in turn, will lead to a greater circulation of the book throughout the world. Understandably, the knowledge that their essays will be printed in a book will further encourage the children to write.

Since we must prepare ourselves for the ingathering of the exiles, it is fitting that each child should write in the language in which he or she can best and most easily communicate his or her feelings. This book should include all the different languages. The order of presentation should be first “the Holy tongue” — Hebrew. Afterwards, it should include Russian, for Chassidus was born and developed in that country16 and also in the last years of Golus, the greatest majority of both the general populous and also the scholars of Israel were found there. Next should come English, because today English is the language with which we can reach the most Jewish children.17 Also it should include Persian, because the Jews of that country are in special need of salvation, and all other languages.

These efforts will lead to the fulfillment of the prophecy, “A great congregation will return there.” Through Ahavas Yisroel our people will be fused into one congregation and they will return to our holy land through Moshiach. Then the children will “recognize Him first.”

5. The parade should not consist of a “meal” after which the children will depart, but rather they should be given something connected with Torah and Mitzvos that will serve as a reminder of the parade. Also, in regard to the essay contest mentioned above, it should be limited to those under 18 or 20 and it would be better, in order not to offend anybody, to limit it to those under Bar and Bas Mitzvah. Then the essays should be printed in a book that should be well-publicized. That book should also include pictures of the children at the parade. The pictures should be taken in a manner that they will include all the children at the parade and later the child will be able to identify himself in the picture. This will cause more excitement among the children, because everyone, even an adult, is excited when his picture is printed. Then, later, when the child grows up, he will show his picture to his own grandchildren and explain that it was taken at the celebration of Lag B’Omer, R. Shimon bar Yochai’s day of joy. Thus, he will also tell him about R. Shimon.

If there are those who are worried about the expense of printing such a book, they should know that “a community never becomes poor” and that if proper efforts are made, the money can be found.

From the parade of Lag B’Omer and the dancing in this celebration, may we proceed to dance to greet Moshiach, who will bring the true and complete redemption, speedily in our days.