By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Meron on Lag Ba’omer is like a magnet, drawing in Jews from across the planet. An ancient, dusty hilltop in the town’s heart pulls close hundreds of thousands of Jewish neshamos, uniting them with nothing other than that spark within.
Against the rhythmic rolling of the busses’ wheels as they struggle up the mountain, there is song. From the hillsides on high and from the valleys below, a song rises. Across oceans, from faraway countries, comes song. And on the hilltop, that song is sung louder and louder, a symphony of disparate voices chanting together, “Omar Rabi Akiva, Ashreichem Yisroel. Ashreichem, ashreichem, ashreichem Yisroel.”
What is the song and what are they singing about?
Chazal paint an enduring picture. Rabi Shimon bar Yochai and his son, Rabi Elozor, had spent twelve years in a cave plumbing the deepest depths of Torah as they hid from the Romans. They were informed by Eliyohu Hanovi that the Roman Caesar had died and the decree to banish them was annulled. Upon exiting, they viewed how people went about their daily lives. They could not bear to witness that people were forsaking the pursuit of actions that would lead them to Olam Haba – manichim chayei olam, in favor of mundane activities – ve’oskim bechayei sha’ah. Everything they set their gaze upon was consumed by fire. A bas kol rang out ordering them back into the cave, lest they destroy the world.
One year after Hashem decreed that they were too harsh in their criticism of a world that didn’t meet their expectations, they were permitted to exit the cave and again attempt to re-enter society.
Upon leaving, they saw a simple, elderly Jew who was finishing hisShabbos preparations and rushing home for Shabbos, holding two bundles of green haddasim. If you have been to Eretz Yisroel on a Friday afternoon, you have doubtlessly seen elderly Sefardigentlemen fitting the description of the man seen by these greatTannaim. Sometimes you see them dressed in their simple Shabbosattire as they scurry to shul with green branches in their hands.
That sight provided them comfort and enabled them to reconcile themselves with the realities of this world. They watched the man go home on Erev Shabbos and found peace.
The Gemara in Maseches Shabbos (33b) tells the story:
“Shabbos was approaching and an elderly Jew was rushing home, clutching two bundles of haddasim in his hands.
“‘What are these for?’they asked the man.
“‘To honor the Shabbos,’ he replied.
“‘But isn’t one bundle enough?’
“‘One is for zachor,’ he explained, ‘and the other is for shamor.’
“‘See how Jews love the mitzvos!’ said Rabi Shimon to his son, and with that they found peace of mind.”
This experience enabled Rabi Elozor and his father, Rabi Shimon, to embrace the imperfect world we inhabit.
Many mechabrim throughout the ages have analyzed this Gemara, searching for a clue as to what it was in that encounter that changed the attitude of the two great Tannaim toward the Jewish people.
Rav Dovid Cohen, the Chevroner rosh yeshiva, in his sefer Mizmor L’Dovid (chapter 17), quotes the Rambanin Parshas Yisro who famously states that the term “zachor” corresponds to the middah of ahavah, while the term “shamor” corresponds to the middah of yirah. Rav Cohen explains that the epitome of ahavah of Hashem is through Torah and the essence of yirah is kiyum hamitzvos. Thus, the two bundles of haddasimhinted at the complete harmony in the synthesis of both middos, the ahavah of Torah and the yirah of kiyum hamitzvos. This idea was comforting, for it demonstrated that the man had adopted a perfect value system.
Perhaps we can add that as a talmid of Rabi Akiva who taught the full potency of these middos, Rabi Shimon bar Yochai derived special comfort when observing that his rebi’s teachings had impacted the behavior of society, thus allowing him to re-enter.
“Ve’ohavta lerei’acha kamocha,Amar Rabi Akiva, zeh klal gadol baTorah.”Loving each and every Jew, taught Rabi Akiva, is fundamental to Torahstudy and the Torah way of life.
It was also Rabi Akiva who saw another message in the elusive word “es” in the posuk which states, “Es Hashem Elokecha tira.” His colleagues were at a loss to explain the seemingly extra word “es.” Is there any fear, they wondered, that can be included in, and compared to, the fear of Heaven? Yes, said Rabi Akiva. The fear, reverence and awe for talmidei chachomim are analogous to the fear of Heaven. The extra word “es,” he explained, is lerabos talmidei chachomim, to include them in the mitzvah of “yirah,” being feared.
We can thus explain the significance of the twobundles, which the elderly man was carrying home for Shabbos. One for zachor, or ahavah, which is the klal gadol baTorah that their rebbi had spoken of, and one bundle for shamor, which is akin to yirah, as the posuk states, “Es Hashem Elokecha tira, lerabos talmidei chachomim.”Their fears were ameliorated through the realization that a simple man internalized Rabi Akiva’s messages.
In contrast to their experience the previous year, this time they were able to see that even a simple Jew utilized hiskochos and what Hashem had given him to transform the ordinary – thechayei sha’ah – into a heavenly – chayei olam – reminder.
When they saw that, they knew that despite the fact that Rabi Akiva’s 24,000talmidim had passed away, the rebbi’s Torah had penetrated the consciousness of knesses Yisroel and there would be a rebirth.
Armed with these two gifts, fear and love, mitzvos and Torah, the Jew climbs, for the Torah’s words and teachings are the tools with which we achieve greatness.
Chazal expound upon the words in the Torah that obligate us to count the days of Sefirah. From the posuk of “Usefartem lochem,” they derive that thecount must be “lekol echod ve’echod,” performed by each person. Commentators explain this homiletically to mean that each person should climb according to the path that will bring him to the desired destination.
Every person is aware of his own abilities, nature, middos and intelligence, and what requires rectification and purification in order for him to be worthy of receiving the Torah at the climax of the count. The goal is the same for all, but the way to climb that mountain is different. It is dependent upon the level of the climber.
A few weeks ago, we wrote about Rav Mendel Futerfas. A friend read the piece and told me a story he heard from Reb Mendel, who would use lessons from his long, difficult incarceration to spur him and his talmidim to greater heights in avodas Hashem.
He related that playing cards was against prison rules, but somehow, the hardened prisoners he was surrounded by would always play in their cell. The prison guard would see them playing and come to confiscate the contraband. However, when he entered the cell, the cards would, unfailingly, all be gone. He would search everywhere, but try as he might, he was never able to find them.
This went on for a long while, until the guard’s final day on the job. He was being transferred and he begged the prisoners to tell him where their hiding place was.
One of the prisoners smiled broadly. He told the guard his secret. “We have criminals of all sorts here,” he said. “In the outside world, I was a skilled pickpocket, with hands as deft as can be. When you would come into our room, I would slip the cards into your own pocket! Then, when you had completed your fruitless search, I would pick them out of your pocket.”
Reb Mendel would share the lesson he derived from that conversation. “The cards are in your pocket,” he would say. “Within the soul Hashem gave you are the tools you need to grow, to climb, and to journey to the top of the mountain, each person on his own path.”
On a much higher level, Rav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz once brought talmidim he was unable to interest in learning to the Chazon Ish. He explained that they had no cheishek to learn and appealed to the Chazon Ish to help them. He thought that with his keen intellect and holiness, the Chazon Ish would find a way to spark their interest in limud haTorah.
The Chazon Ish looked each bochur in the eye and then began to learn a different sugya with each one individually. After that encounter, they each began to learn well and develop in learning. The Chazon Ishexplained to Rav Michel Yehuda that the Torah is for everyone, but there are different paths to each person’s soul. Some are affected by learning this sugya, while others are stirred by learning a different sugya. He found a sugya that would be attractive to each one of the boys, and through that sugya he drew them into learning and showed them that they can also experience geshmak and have a cheilek in Torah. Once that had been accomplished, they were able to go on to learn many other sugyos in Shas.
In light of what we have discussed, perhaps we can explain why the name of the upcoming Yom Tov isShavuos, instead of a title related to kabbolas haTorah. The word Shavuos, meaning weeks, hints at the fact that the success of each person’s individual kabbolas haTorah depends upon how they utilized the previous seven weeks leading up to the chag. Their level of Torah is dependent on the amount of preparation and effort invested in preparing to be worthy of accepting the Torah. It’s a path of seven weeks, shavuos, meant for each person to engage in “usefartem lochem,” doing what he has to do. There are ups and downs, with hills that must be climbed and valleys that are to be traversed.
It is said that Sefirah can also mean to shine, as in the verse “sappir veyahalom,” which refers to the glow of a precious stone. This hints to the need for each person to shine a light upon his personal path. As the sabaobserved by the Tannaim taught, each person has his own course. As we march to Har Sinai, each of us has his “haddasim,” the mundane accessories which service the raging fires of our souls; and add to our own packages of zechuyos andmitzvos.
On Lag Ba’omer, when we connect with the holiness brought into this world by Rabi Shimon and his son as they studied Torah in the cave, we also celebrate “hahu saba,” the simple old man who rose from the ashes of the destruction wrought on the talmidei Rabi Akiva and announced that the twin messages were heard.
Their holiness burned everything they had seen, because they saw only accessories for chayei sha’ah. The punishment had been dealt to the talmidim of Rabi Akiva because they had shown disrespect for each other. In the old man’s simple gestures, they saw healing, ahavah between all and reverence for those who learn the holy Torah,a yirah so acute as to be compared to the fear of Heaven.
The Gemara tells us that this encounter occurred during the very last few moments ofErev Shabbos, at twilight. Why is this relevant?
This week, most sensitive people wanted to scream when they read a certain news item. Bold headlines in the international media shouted out last week, “‘The Scream’ Auctioned for Record $119.9 Million.” The report went on to tell about the century-old pastel drawing that beat all previous records and became the most expensive painting ever sold. If you look at the drawing, you can’t understand why anyone would pay anything for it, but sophisticated art critics and dealers had no trouble explaining the painting’s appeal.
“The Scream is more than a painting. It’s a symbol of psychology as it anticipates the 20th-century traumas of mankind,” Ivor Braka, a London dealer, told the New York Times.
One hundred and nineteen million dollars for a symbol of depression, anger and pain.
Think about what yeshivos and mosdos you care about and people like Rav Shammai Blobstein and Rav Yaakov Bender, or the good folks at Oorah, Lev L’Achim and Shuvu, think about people who help those who can’t make ends meet and what they could do with that kind of money and you’ll want to scream.
The Berditchever Rebbe, the great defender of Yidden, once made a poignant, powerful observation. “Kvetch ois Yiddishe tefillos, squeeze out the tefillos of Yidden, and you will find money,” said the rebbe. He was saying that so much of what we ask for revolves around parnassah, the needs of our families and ourselves. “Yet,” concluded Rav Levi Yitzchok, “squeeze out Yiddishe gelt and you will find Yiddishe tefillos.”
Even though we ask for sustenance and livelihood, the rebbe was saying, the goal of financial ability is to enable us and our children to learn more Torah and perform mitzvos better. The money is for matzos andDaled Minim and s’char limud.
The “kessef”of a Yid, say seforim, is an expression of hiskissufim, his deepest yearnings.
How sad life is for those whose money expresses a different reality. How misguided is a world where one hundred and nineteen million dollars are invested in expressing pain, and in a most crude manner at that.
The significance of twilight as the time for the encounter between the holy Tannaim and this pure, preciousYid was the fact that it is the meeting point between chol andkodesh.
Shamor is a mandate to protect and safeguard the Shabbos, to carefully and zealously avoid muktzah and forbiddenmelachos, spending the twenty-five hours of Shabbos in a state of awareness of Hashem’s Presence.Zachor is the light of Shabbos spilling over into the week. It is the mandate to remember the Shabbos each morning in the shir shel yom and every time one goes shopping and sees a choice cut of meat or beautiful fruit. Remember the holiness even at times that are seemingly mundane, because to a Yid, there is nothing that isn’t saturated with holiness. Tuesday or Wednesday can be invested with a bit of kedushas Shabbosthrough the mitzvah of “Zachor es yom haShabbos lekadsho.” That is the significance of the final moments ofErev Shabbos. It is a lesson thatchol – money, food, clothing – are all vessels for kedushah.
It was the lesson of the elderly man, at that auspicious hour, just before the onset of Shabbos.
Modim anachnu loch Hashem Elokeinu that You have invested us with the awareness that our money, ourkessef, is laden with potential. Our “scream” is that of “Retzoneinu la’asos retzonecha.” We cry out, “Help us serve You.”
That is why on Lag Ba’omer, Jews in Meron and the world over sing what we have been singing since the passing of Rabi Shimon: Omar Rabi Akiva, Ashreichem Yisroel. Ashreichem, ashreichem, ashreichem Yisroel.There is no one like you, Am Yisroel. No one who can turn myrtle branches into Tzfaser haddasim and vehicles for shamor and zachor. There is no one who can love as Yisroel does, and no one who can fear as we do, either. Ashreichem Yisroel.