Lag BaOmer is the yahrzeit (the anniversary of the passing) of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, one of the greatest Sages of the Talmud and the author of the Zohar, the fundamental text of the Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. Customarily, we commemorate Lag BaOmer by outings, taking our children out to the forests and the fields and celebrating.

This raises an obvious question: Is it right to commemorate the passing of a great scholar by closing our books and going out to the fields? Of Rabbi Shimon, it was said Toraso Umanaso, Torah study was his occupation; his entire life centered around these teachings. Why then do we recall him by taking a vacation from school?

The point is that Lag BaOmer is a vacation from school, but not a vacation from the Torah. On the contrary, the intent is to show how Rabbi Shimon’s teachings give us the insight to extend the Torah beyond the confines of the school building. Forests and fields are not usually associated with the Jewish life. And yet, Rabbi Shimon provides us with the mindset to extend the Torah’s wisdom into such settings.

This is dependent on Rabbi Shimon’s mystic teachings. The Zohar which he authored gives us the conceptual underpinnings to perceive G‑dliness in every environment, and to understand how every element of our existence reflects spiritual truth.

Another reason we celebrate Lag BaOmer is that an epidemic which caused the death of 24,000 of the disciples of the great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Akiva, ceased on that day.

Our Sages relate that the epidemic was caused by the failure of these students to treat each other respectfully. This is very surprising. After all, was it not Rabbi Akiva who defined the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” as “a fundamental principle of the Torah”? How could his disciples have departed from his teachings so drastically?

Chassidic thought explains that because every person is unique in his nature and thought processes, he has a unique path in the service of G‑d. Similarly, each of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples had his own approach. Because they were highly developed individuals, each had internalized his particular approach to the point that it dominated his personality.

Operating from within his own perspective, each considered any approach different from his own as incomplete, inadequate and inferior. Being men of integrity, they no doubt spoke their minds plainly. And since all were intensely involved in their own paths of service, none would change. The tension between them escalated, as the deep commitment every student felt to his own particular approach prevented him from showing respect for those who followed a different path.

What was wrong with the students’ perspective? Nothing and everything.

Nothing, because every one of the paths proposed by the students could have been correct.

And everything, because their tunnel-vision prevented them from seeing any version of the truth other than their own.

No matter how deeply we are involved in our own service to G‑d, we must remain broadminded enough to appreciate that someone else may have a different approach. Although, from our perspective, other paths may appear inadequate, this perception may stem from our own limitations.

Furthermore, even if someone is indeed underdeveloped, his deficiencies need not prevent us from looking upon him in a favorable light. For every individual possesses a potential for growth. We should concentrate on helping others realize that potential, rather than merely accentuating their need to do so.

Rabbi Akiva’s own life serves as an example of how any person can reach greatness regardless of his background. Rabbi Akiva descended from a family of converts, and did not begin to study until the age of 40. Nevertheless, he attained such heights of scholarship that our entire knowledge of the Oral Law rests on his teachings.

Furthermore, we need not wait for miracles to inspire us. Rabbi Akiva was motivated to begin studying Torah by a simple physical observation. Noticing how a rock had been worn away by the sheer constancy of dripping water - though each drop had no apparent effect - he understood that Torah (which is likened to water) could refine even those aspects of his nature that were as rough as stone.