Rabbi Shimon's Day

As is well known,1 Lag BaOmer2 was instituted as a day of rejoicing3 because Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai died on that day. On the day of a person's passing, his entire lifework and all his labor in Torah and mitzvos are gathered together and ascend to the spiritual realms.4

Therefore, at the time of his passing, Rabbi Shimon declared: "With one bond, I am bound to Him; in it as one, in it aflame."5 He was connected to G‑d, the source of life, in an eternal bond. And thus, when he was in the midst of the verse:6 "There G‑d commanded the blessing of life..," "the light of holiness did not complete saying the word 'life' before his voice was hushed."7 Rabbi Shimon became eternally bound to the attribute of life.

Every year, the spiritual heights reached by Rabbi Shimon on the day of his passing are "recalled and relived." And thus, every year, Lag BaOmer is a day of celebration.

From the Highest Peaks to the Lowest Depths

The Jerusalem Talmud states8 that when Rabbi Akiva ordained his students Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Shimon, he asked Rabbi Meir to sit before Rabbi Shimon. At this, Rabbi Shimon's face soured. Rabbi Akiva consoled him by saying: "It is sufficient for you that I and your Creator appreciate your potential." This implies that Rabbi Shimon's potential could not be appreciated even by Rabbi Akiva's students.

To put the matter in perspective: With regard to Rabbi Meir, our Sages state:9 "His colleagues could not appreciate the depth of his knowledge." Rabbi Meir's colleagues were, however, able to appreciate that he possessed wisdom. With regard to Rabbi Shimon, however, even Rabbi Meir could not appreciate his wisdom; only "I [Rabbi Akiva] and your Creator."

Rabbi Akiva's level was (as explained in Chassidus) higher than that of Nadav and Avihu, as evidenced by the fact that he "entered in peace and left in peace."10 And similarly, it is explained that, among the ten martyrs, Rabbi Akiva is identified with G‑d Himself.11 Therefore it was Rabbi Akiva and the Creator alone who recognized Rabbi Shimon's potential.

So even while alive, Rabbi Shimon's level was incomparably higher than that of his contemporaries. Surely we can appreciate that at the time of his passing, he reached an even higher peak. One might then think that because he was on such a rung, his happiness on Lag BaOmer is too elevated to be meaningful to ordinary people. As the following story12 illustrates, this is not the case.

The AriZal had a disciple who would include the prayer Nacheim, recited for the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash13 as part of the Grace14 after Meals, every day. From the wording of the story, it appears that the student would make this addition even on Shabbos and festivals.

On Lag BaOmer, the student came to Meron to pray at Rabbi Shimon's grave, and as was his practice, he recited Nachaim at that time as well. Rabbi Shimon's spirit was disturbed at the recitation of Nacheim on the day of his celebration, and this caused the student to suffer.

To explain: Rabbi Shimon's spiritual level was above even the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash.15 Therefore on the day of his rejoicing, when his spiritual level is revealed, it is not appropriate to focus on the destruction.

This story underscores two points:

a) Lag BaOmer possesses a quality above that of even Shabbos and the festivals, for the AriZal' s student suffered negative consequences for reciting Nacheim on Lag BaOmer, but not on any other occasion.

b) The celebration of Lag BaOmer should encompass all Jews, even those affected by the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash as reflected in the daily recitation of Nacheim.

This points to the uniqueness of Rabbi Shimon's Divine service: he was able to fuse polar opposites, drawing down the highest levels the level of "With one bond, I am bound to Him" to the lowest depths.16

Ultimate Dedication to the Study of Torah

This fusion of opposites is reflected in Rabbi Shimon's rulings in the realm of Nigleh, the revealed dimensions of Torah law. For example, with regard to the verse:17 "This Torah scroll will not depart from your mouth," the Talmud18 mentions a difference of opinion between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon.

Rabbi Yishmael explained that the verse is not meant to be understood in an absolutely literal sense. We must follow the ordinary pattern of the world, he argued ploughing, sowing, and the like even though this requires a departure from the study of the Torah.

Rabbi Shimon, by contrast, maintained that the verse should be understood in its most literal sense: the entire day should be devoted to the study of Torah. Moreover, he said that if Jews dedicate themselves to G‑d's will in this manner, their work will be accomplished by others.

The Talmud concludes that many followed the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael and were successful. In contrast, many who followed the opinion of Rabbi Shimon were not successful. This indicates that Rabbi Shimon's approach is above the level appropriate for this material world.

Personally, however, Rabbi Shimon followed his own opinion. "His Torah was his occupation."19 His days were filled with study alone.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Shimon did not compel others to follow his example. The Talmud relates20 that when he and his son, Rabbi Elazar, emerged from the cave where they had hidden for 13 years (an experience which elevated their spiritual level immensely), Rabbi Elazar saw people engaged in worldly concerns and destroyed them with his glance. "How can they abandon eternal life for temporal matters?" he exclaimed. [He then with a glance destroyed those people.]

But "whatever Rabbi Elazar destroyed, Rabbi Shimon healed." Not only did he not destroy as did his son, he mended what his son had devastated. For as he explained to his son: "You and I [who study in a manner of 'his Torah is his occupation,'] are sufficient for the world."

Moreover, we find that it is Rabbi Shimon who stated:21 "Even if all a person did was read the Shema in the morning and the evening, he has fulfilled the charge, 'This Torah scroll shall not depart….' "

According to certain opinions, the mitzvah of reading the Shema involves only the first verse.22 Rabbi Shimon maintained that when a person is unable to study Torah the entire day because he has other concerns with which the Torah requires him to be occupied, or because he is ignorant and incapable of studying,23 he fulfills the charge "This Torah scroll shall not depart…" with the recitation of the Shema alone.24

This reflects the unique ability of Rabbi Shimon to encompass the most complete devotion to Torah study a literal fulfillment of the charge "This Torah scroll shall not depart…." and a person incapable of studying more than "one verse in the morning and one verse in the evening." Rabbi Shimon's teaching reflects how the infinite dimensions of the Torah are invested in even the tiny segment which such a person is able to read.

To Mend What Needs Mending

Rabbi Shimon's achievements are even greater; he was able to draw down the unlimited dimensions of the Torah even into worldly matters. For the Torah itself mandates activity of this nature, as it commands: "And you shall gather your grain."25 (People at large are not expected to make an all-encompassing commitment to the study of the Torah, as Rabbi Shimon told his son, "you and I are enough for the world".) And furthermore, he "mended" the world, rectifying difficulties that existed beforehand.

He did not wait until he saw a problem, and then set out to correct it. Instead, he sought out problems to correct, asking others: "Is there anything that I could rectify?" And when he was told that there was a place which priests avoided because of a question of ritual impurity26 , he set out to correct the difficulty. Although the question involved impurity contracted from a human corpse the most serious form of ritual impurity27 Rabbi Shimon was able to make the place suitable even for priests.

When was Rabbi Shimon able to make such a contribution? After he had reached the highest peaks through his 13 years of Torah study in the cave.28 Following the principle:29 "It is the highest levels that can descend to the lowest depths," it was at this time that he was best able to descend to worldly concerns, including the rectification of situations that were in need of correction.30

Israel's Advocate

Our Sages31 also quote Rabbi Shimon as saying: "I can [find a defense that will] acquit every Jew from the attribute of judgment." Although there are people who have committed undesirable acts, Rabbi Shimon was able to find grounds for their defense.

This reflects an even greater descent than that involved in rectifying a problem involving the impurity which stems from contact with the dead. After the Sin of the Tree of Knowledge, death (and the resulting impurity) became part of the natural pattern of this world, independent of man's free choice. Sin (and the judgment that accompanies it) is thus lower than death, being the product, not of nature, but of a Jew's unwise choice. Nevertheless, Rabbi Shimon was able to descend to that level,32 for in order to act as an advocate for someone one must develop empathy for him,33 and advance arguments to acquit such individuals.

Moreover, this descent was not mandated from above, as was G‑d's command to Moshe:34 "Go and descend." Instead, Rabbi Shimon made the choice on his own initiative, out of his desire to "acquit every Jew from the attribute of judgment."

Rabbi Shimon was willing and able to descend to such a low level because he was among "the superior men who are few in number."35

Anticipating Redemption

As are all the stories in the Torah, the stories about Rabbi Shimon's conduct serve as a directive for every Jew in later generations. This has been particularly true ever since the teachings of P'nimiyus HaTorah , the wisdom of Rabbi Shimon, were revealed.

Following Rabbi Shimon's example, it is necessary for us to "spread the wellsprings [of Chassidus] outward," to join the two ends of the spiritual spectrum. We must take not only from the river, but from the wellspring itself the very heart of the teachings of P'nimiyus HaTorah and spread the "water" to the most extreme peripheries.

This will prepare the world for the coming of Mashiach , who will likewise join two extremes. On one hand, he will study Torah with the Patriarchs and Moshe our teacher.36 At the same time, he will occupy himself with the poor, as it is written:37 "He shall judge the poor with righteousness." Indeed, he will even influence the viper, causing it to cease harming people.38

All this depends on our efforts. We must raise a generation in which children will study P'nimiyus HaTorah. As Rabbi Shimon said: "In the generation in which Mashiach comes, children both children in a chronological sense and children in knowledge will study P'nimiyus HaTorah."39

Our Sages comment:40 "Rabbi Shimon is worthy enough to rely on in a time of difficulty." Beyond the simple meaning of the statement in its source, there is room for an extended interpretation. In an era when we are beset by the hardships of exile, we should rely on Rabbi Shimon. Indeed, Rabbi Shimon himself said that he, together with Achiyah of Shiloh, were worthy of "acquitting every Jew from the attribute of judgment until the days of Mashiach."41

Rabbi Shimon has been promised:42 "With this composition of yours, the Zohar, Israel will be redeemed from exile in mercy." This promise involves a logical sequence; the Redemption will come when the outlook of Rabbi Shimon who stood above the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash is spread throughout the world.

Rabbi Shimon's teachings must be spread everywhere, even in places which need correction, even in places which are ritually impure. And this will lead to the fulfillment of the prophecy:43 "I will remove the spirit of impurity from the world," making even such places fit to serve as dwellings for the Jewish people Israelites, Levites, and priests.

Thus the world will be fit for the Jewish nation, of whom it is said:44 "And you shall be a nation of priests for Me," and for G‑d Himself, of whom it is said: "Your G‑d is a priest."45 For Eretz Yisrael will spread throughout the entire world,46 making the world into a dwelling for G‑d.

(Adapted from Sichos Lag BaOmer, 5722)