By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
The mourning aspects of the Sefirah period have so taken over the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuos that we can sometimes forget that Sefirah is more than not shaving and listening to music. Sefirah represents a countdown to Kabbolas HaTorah and, as such, is a time to prepare ourselves and make ourselves worthy of accepting the Torah and inculcating it into our very fiber and being.
The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos teaches that in order to properly aquire Torah, we must advance through 48 steps. Most of those steps involve matters which relate to the way we deal and interact with one another. One who has not perfected himself ethically and morally cannot properly excel in Torah study. A person who is deficient in the way he deals with other people will also be lacking in Torah. It is impossible to grow in Torah if one is not well behaved, humble and properly disciplined.
The Ramchal in Maamar Hachochmah discusses the idea that the Bnei Yisroel in Mitzrayim sunk to the 49th level of depravity. After redeeming them from servitude, Hakadosh Boruch Hu provided for them the 49-day period between Pesach and Shavuos so that they could raise themselves from the abyss of decadence and alter their behavior in a steady progression until they would be worthy of receiving Hashem’s Torah on Shavuos.
This ability is evident every year during this time period, the Ramchal says. The Ohr Hachaim adds to this concept and writes (Vayikrah 23:15) that the counting of the days of the Omer is akin to the count that an impure person performs to calculate the time remaining until he can become pure again. During this period, we must engage in introspection, much the same as the unclean person would do.
These days involve more than a ritual counting and mourning; they demand a spiritual ascendancy to cleanse ourselves from the moral and spiritual imperfections which afflict all of us. During this period, we are to study and apply the 48 steps of Torah in order to become bnei and bnos Torah.
The mourning we engage in is directly tied to the introspection that this period obligates.
We all know that it was during this time that 24,000 talmidim of the great Tanna, Rabi Akiva, passed away, because they did not display proper respect for one another.
As we mourn their loss to this very day and emulate their accomplishments, we seek to replace them on a certain level and rectify the sin which caused their demise. As we seek to strengthen our attachment to Torah and its transmission to others, it is incumbent upon us to work to improve our middos. Only one who has perfected his personality traits can successfully study and transmit Torah. Someone who is lacking in the 48 attributes cannot grow in Torah.
Rav Elchonon Wasserman taught (Kovetz Maamarim Ve’igros) that one who is pretentious and egotistical cannot be successful in a leadership position. An effective leader communicates properly with others. He feels their pain, relates to them, and does not consider himself on a higher plane than the people he serves.
In order to reach people, one has to really care about them and want to influence them. You have to address them with respect. Nobody likes being talked down to. Most people respond to positive reinforcement and tune out negativity.
If you behave with mentchlichkeit and treat people properly, you will be able to effect change in them. People will respect you and listen to you. You will be able to help people improve their shemiras hamitzvos, their Torah learning, their understanding of life and their acceptance of their lot.
The greatest teacher is not the one who knows the most, and the greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one who motivates people to accomplish the greatest things. The greatest teacher is the one who can crawl into the soul of his students and reach them.
A quality teacher gives a child the feeling that he has confidence in him and recognizes his potential for achieving greatness. The quality rebbi or morah lets the student know that he or she shares their dreams, hopes and goals for the future, and will do everything possible to help the child attain them.
You can convince people to perform positive acts by appealing to their hopes or by playing to their fears. The one who excels makes sure to speak to people’s confidence and not to their doubts, with facts and not with fantasy. People respond much better and are more likely to rise to the challenge when they are treated with dignity.
For leaders and teachers, as well as parents and friends, communication is a lot more than mere words. What matters is not necessarily what we say, but how we say it. We can inspire and motivate when we communicate with genuine love and care. By imparting our true feelings effectively, our children, students, friends and acquaintances will understand that they are admired and loved by people who have confidence in their abilities.
Others might be superior to us in intelligence, experience and diplomatic skills, but if we pay attention and exercise care when speaking to people, we can accomplish so much more. Our lives have a deeper purpose than simply fulfilling selfish impulses. There is so much we can do and accomplish if we only set our minds to it. There is no excuse to say that we are not smart enough. There is no excuse to say that we are not capable. It is no defense to say that we don’t have proper experience or ability.
We have to care about others. We must have passion in what we do. And we have to let it show. We can all help other people and remind them of their inherent greatness. We have to be optimistic about life and about our own abilities, and we have to convey that to others.
Every one of us possesses the ability to affect the world. If only we would maximize our G-d-given abilities to study Torah as well as we possibly can; if only we would utilize the strength that Hashem gave us to build instead of destroy, to be optimistic instead of pessimistic; if only we would use the brachos that Hashem blessed us with to shower others with material and spiritual goodness, we could transform the world, person by person, station by station, town by town, and city by city.
Sefirah is a time for us to dedicate ourselves to perfecting those abilities so that we can grow in the lilmod as well as the lelameid of Torah.
On Lag Ba’omer, hundreds of thousands travel to the kever of Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai in Meron to daven at that holy site together with so many other good Jews. Those who don’t make the trek build a neighborhood fire, which they dance around as they sing songs dedicated to Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai and Rabi Akiva. The festivities inject a spiritual energy into the day.
Lag Ba’omer brings a welcome interruption to the Sefirah mourning period. We take haircuts, shave, trim our beards and allow music to cheer us once again.
Why is it that the customs of mourning in commemoration of the passing of the talmidim of Rabi Akiva have taken over Sefirah? Why is it that Lag Ba’omer has become a day widely celebrated, though it is in no sense a holiday?
Rabi Akiva was the greatest sage of his generation. It is said that he was the shoresh of Torah Shebaal Peh. The line of transmission of the Torah from Sinai to future generations ran through him and his students. When his 24,000 students were wiped out, it was a major cause of depression. How would the chain continue? Who would provide the light of Torah to future generations? How could they ever be replaced? How could a grieving people on the run from Roman persecution be consoled for the loss of so many great men crucial to the spiritual survival of the nation?
The urge to say it’s all over must have been overwhelming. The less faithful and more pessimistic among them must have been ready to give up. But Rabi Akiva recovered from his devastating loss and proceeded to transmit the Torah through a new group of five students.
On this day, which marked a cessation of the deaths of Rabi Akiva’s students, we commemorate the renewal. We celebrate the determination. We foresee the future bright with hopefulness and optimism. On this day, the talmidim stopped dying and Rabi Akiva’s talmid, Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai, revealed the secrets of Toras Hasod, which infused all future generations with added dimensions of kedushah and understanding.
As the centuries pass, and as the Romans of every period seek our destruction and annihilation, we look to Rabi Akiva and Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai for inspiration. We note how they looked the enemy in the face and persevered, ensuring that our nation and our Torah are alive and flourishing to this very day. In the wake of a tragedy which would have felled lesser people, Rabi Akiva strengthened himself and set about ensuring that the chain would remain unbroken.
As the golus continues and our situation becomes more precarious, as enemies surround us within and without, we must not weaken in our devotion to Torah. Noting how many giants our people have lost, we hear voices stating that we can never recoup the losses. We are doomed to mediocrity, they proclaim.
Lag Ba’omer rejects that hopelessness. It stands as a beacon and proclaims that we are never to give up hope or allow the chain of greatness to break. The fires of Lag Ba’omer burn vibrantly and call out to us that the future will be bright, the mesorah will continue uninterrupted, and our people can and will be great once again.
The more our exile is prolonged, the more we turn to days like Lag Ba’omer for inspiration and encouragement, and the more popular their observance becomes.
But it is not enough to just light a fire. It is not enough to sing and dance. We have to be prepared to work as hard as Rabi Akiva did. We have to be prepared for the deprivation suffered by Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son, Rabi Elazar. We have to be ameilim baTorah if we want to merit the blessings of rebirth and redemption. We have to perfect ourselves and apply the 48 steps that Torah accrual requires.
Let’s gather in the rays of Torah and spread its light. We each have the ability to light up the world with Torah and maasim tovim, with intelligence and splendor. Let us pray that the fires spark within our souls a flame of holiness; dedication to proper middos as well as the mesorah and Torah. That way, we will merit the realization of the prophecies discussed in the works of Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai with the arrival of Moshiach Tzidkeinu, bimeheirah biyomeinu. Amein.