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THE POWER OF UNITY





Everyone knows that Lag Ba’Omer, the thirty third day of the omer counting, is a holiday. After this day, something changes. We resume holding parties, listening to music, and are allowed to take haircuts. But what is the significance of this day? What happened on Lag Ba’Omer, and what does it have to do with us?

The answer is that Lag Ba’Omer has a double significance. Two important events happened on this day, and they each teach us an important lesson. First, the students of Rabbi Akiva stopped dying, and second, it is the day that Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai passed away. These events may not sound so significant, but it’s worthwhile to explain the background, so that we can appreciate the great impact of these events.

Rabbi Akiva and His Students

The great sage, Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef, only became lettered and religious at the age of 40. It’s mindboggling that most of us were more knowledgeable at the age of eight than Rabbi Akiva was at the age of forty. His life changed when he married a very righteous girl, Rachel, against the wishes of her father, Calba Savua, one of the wealthiest men of Israel. She believed in Rabbi Akiva and saw that he had a future. She agreed to the marriage on condition that Akiva attend yeshiva. She sent him to learn for twelve years. When he arrived, they put him in Pre-1A, with the little kids. But due to his diligence and brilliant mind, he emerged twelve years later as a rabbi of rabbis. He went on to stay and study for twenty-four years, establishing his own yeshiva with twenty-four thousand students.

Tragically, all of Rabbi Akiva’s students perished. It started on the second day of Pesah and continued for about a month, until all twenty-four thousand died. Go figure how many funerals he went to each day. By the end, he lost his students, but more significantly, the Jewish people lost their future. Our Torah is given from generation to generation, starting from Moshe to Yehoshua. Rabbi Akiva’s students were the vital link in transmitting the Torah to the next generation. If the link would have been broken, the Torah itself would have been in jeopardy. Thus, it was one of the greatest calamities that ever befell our people.

The question is: why did they die? While we could never conjecture on our own the reason for such a tragedy, the gemara itself tells us the reason. These students were apparently deficient in their comradery. They were lacking in unity and peace amongst themselves. Precisely because they were on such a high level, Gd demanded a superior level of cohesiveness amongst them. Far be it from us to feel that we are better than they were. But on their level, Hashem deemed them lacking brotherhood and respect for one another.

The Lesson of Unity

We learn from here that disunity is not just a sin, but it is outright dangerous. We see this from another tragic episode in Jewish history, as well. The great mekubal, the Arizal, Rabbi Yishak Luria of Tsfat, once told his disciple, Rabbi Haim Vital, that he saw in heaven that a decree had been issued upon him to die. He told his students that there is only one way he could be saved. “Please ensure that there is shalom among you.” They made an effort, and for six months there was absolute harmony between the students. Then, the wives of the students got into a little politics, and it became more involved until it spread to the husbands and a dispute broke out. In those days, the Arizal would go with his students to the fields outside of Tsfat, dressed in white, to greet the Shabbat Queen. That was how they did kabbalat Shabbat. That week, when the Arizal came back, he looked pale, as though he saw a ghost. They asked him what happened. “Unfortunately,” he replied, “I saw a pasuk, ‘gam atem gam malkehem tisofu - you and your king are going to die.’ The decree is back on. I’m not going to make it through the year. Now that there is disunity, I no longer have protection.” Sure enough, on the fifth day of the month of Av, he passed away at the young age of thirty-eight. If there would have been peace, he could have continued.

When we come to Lag Ba’Omer, we are reminded, that strife is not merely “not nice”- it’s dangerous. When there is peace, there is a protective wall. When it is breached, Satan and his legions can penetrate.

 “Standing Up” for Our Principles

The mishna says in Pirkeh Avot that one of the ten miracles in the Bet Hamikdash was “Omdim sefufim, mishtahavim revahim.” This means that when the courtyard of the Temple was filled to capacity, when they stood, it was crowded. After all, there is a limit to how many people can fit in a building. Yet, when they bowed, there was a miracle that everyone had plenty of room to prostrate themselves.  It’s as though the Bet Hamikdash expanded.

I once heard an intriguing explanation of this miracle from the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Shlomo Amar. He taught that this is a lesson in life, not just something that happened in the Bet Hamikdash. The Rabbis are teaching us that life becomes very crowded and constrictive when everybody “stands ups” for their principles. When family members and neighbors are rigid and stand their ground, the world becomes a very difficult place to live in. However, when they “bow,” i.e. bend and let it slide, all of the sudden the world becomes a more comfortable space to live in. There’s plenty of room for everyone.

Woe to the people who stand on principle. When there is no flexibility, Heaven forbid, Gd also says, “If you are standing on principle and insist on being right, I will also be strict and stand on the letter of the law.” When Gd seeks severe judgment, who can stand before Him? We want Gd to be flexible with us, as we are not perfect. We want Him to bend the rules a little bit with us, right? Gd acts toward us as we act to others. So, when somebody wrongs you, don’t stand on principle. Then the world becomes a more comfortable place to live in, and there is no din.

Wisdom from Shlomo Hamelech

Let me explain to you a pasuk that Shlomo Hamelech said:“Kmayim hapanim lapanim, ken lev ha’adam la’adam - As water is to the face, so too are the hearts of one human being to another.” Just as the water reflects the same image you present it, the same is true with people. The feelings you convey to a fellow Jew are reflected back. All feelings are contagious - whether good vibes or bad vibes. If I exude love to someone, it comes back. If I smile at you, you can’t help but smile back. The same is true if I exude anger or mistrust; the feelings are reciprocal.

This insight of Shlomo Hamelech is obvious in a case where you see my good will to you. The hiddush (novelty) is that even if the other person does not see your feelings towards him, he is still inclined to reciprocate. If you know someone doesn’t like you, you can turn him around by thinking good feelings about him in your heart. Those vibes from your soul will reach his soul. All of the sudden you will notice the other person is nice to you. But if you sit brooding how much you don’t like a person, he will reciprocate. It may not happen overnight, but it will affect him.

Let’s go a little deeper. Why did Shlomo Hamelech refer to someone looking at his face in the water? Why not use the more common image of looking in a mirror? What’s so special about looking in the water? I heard a beautiful explanation from the great rabbis. When a person looks in the mirror, he is standing straight. To look in the water you have to bend. Shlomo Hamelech is telling us that if you want people to reflect positive energy to you, you have to bend a little and be flexible. The first key is to shed a little of your ego and let someone else enter.

Blessings Come When We Strive for Cohesiveness

I have seen couples on the verge of divorce because of arguments about the color of the couch. I personally don’t even know what color my own couch is. The man was saying, “But I’m right!” I told him, “Don’t be right; be smart.” There is no wisdom in being right. The purpose of marriage is to achieve harmony and give of yourself. When you stand on your principles, you end up standing all by yourself. The same is true between families - in the community and with business partners.

By making room for the other, and not standing on principle, we are doing the greatest favor for ourselves, our children, and our community. The main root of the word “community” is “unity.” As long as there is no cohesiveness in a community, there is an exposure to more cases of trouble and tragedy, as in the times of Rabbi Akiva.

This is the key to Lag Ba’Omer. It is the day we say, “Enough with the tragedies. We’ve learnt the lesson. We have already lost so many great people because of disunity.” Unity is the blessing and there is no better time than Lag Ba’omer to bring down a tremendous amount of Divine blessing.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai

If Rabbi Akiva is the hero of the first lesson of Lag Ba’Omer, then Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai is the hero of the second aspect. After the calamity that befell his students, Rabbi Akiva did not give up. If you would have told me that he had a nervous breakdown and decided to retreat into solitude after the tremendous loss, I would have understood. But no! Rabbi Akiva’s greatness was that he said, “If I wasn’t successful the first time, I will try again.” He proceeded to start a small yeshiva and chose five disciples. His prime student was Rashbi- Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai. Rabbi Akiva passed over his Torah to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai over the course of thirteen years.

Once, Rabbi Shimon made some negative statements about the Roman government. His comments got back to the Romans, and they issued a death sentence. He fled, along with his son, Rabbi Elazar. They found refuge in a cave for twelve years. Gd, who provides for everybody, made a carob tree sprout up for them to eat from and a stream of water to drink from. During those twelve years they revealed the esoteric secrets of the Torah. This is when Rabbi Shimon composed the Zohar - which literally means “light,” as he brought a great illumination into the world. This was only possible because he was totally detached from worldliness and materialism. Rabbi Shimon left this world on Lag Ba’Omer, and he told his students not to relate to the day of his passing as a sad day, but rather as a hilula, a festive day celebrating his achievements and the lessons of his life.

Authentic Kabbalah Study

The fact that he only revealed the Zohar while in a state of total purity of mind and body is a sobering lesson for us in today’s world. The Kabbalah is studied by earnest talmideh hachamim who have already mastered the revealed Torah – Talmud and Shulhan Arukh. These are not studied like geometry and trigonometry. You can’t eat a pastrami sandwich while skimming a book of Kabbalah. It’s not something you delve into while sitting by the pool in Turnberry.  It doesn’t work that way. It requires a holy environment, like the cave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai. You can’t go into a Barnes & Noble and buy “Kabbalah for Dummies” and read it for a couple of days to become a Kabbalist who can work wonders. This would be an abuse of a holy study.

We must be extremely careful when we hear the word Kabbalah thrown around. It is a word that has become abused and misused. Any concept that gets in the hands of Hollywood, by definition, becomes vandalized and misconstrued. The Hollywood “stars,” who are actually people of dereliction and lowliness, have become infatuated with the Kabbalah and have opened Kabbalah centers and host Kabbalah parties. Please know, when you see a Kabbalah center you should run for your life. They have taken our holiest books and distorted them. They have taken the holy names of Gd and desecrated them, turning them into fads and fashion. We have no connection with these places. Don’t ever be tempted to take a class there. They wouldn’t know what the Kabbalah is if it hit them of the head. They rob your soul and your pocket, and you come out bankrupt on both counts.

Hacham Baruch, zt”l, was very careful in this respect. We all have a certain weak spot for  Kabbalah and a special interest in it. When certain rabbis appear, with title of Kabbalist, we get excited, especially if they have a white robe or other magic tricks in their briefcase. Don’t get me wrong. There are real holy mekubalim who are giants. Yet, for every real mekubal there are ten fakers. Baruch Hashem, they don’t come to our community, because Hacham Baruch erected a protective wall against them. They couldn’t get past him, so they pop up in Miami or Los Angeles, where people aren’t as aware. There, they take out ads in newspapers that the great mekubal has arrived and will be giving out berachot and red strings… and collecting wallets. Don’t misunderstand. It is a misva to become close and support the authentic great mekubalim. How do you know the difference? How can you tell who’s who? You have to ask your rabbi. I, for example, receive my information from the great mekubalim of the generation who told me to watch out for so and so. So too, you have to consult with a Hacham to determine whether this person is someone I should run after to kiss his feet, or is someone to run away from. You can’t know this on your own.

The Legacy We Take on Lag Ba’Omer

This is the legacy of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai. He not only revealed the deepest secrets of the Kabbalah. He taught all generations, by example, that the embodiment of a mekubal is someone who has mastered all other areas of the Torah and leads a spiritual life detached from material pleasures.

Thus, Lag Ba’Omer is a powerful day of beracha, in which the legacy of unity learnt from Rabbi Akiva merges with the spiritual heights of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai. All who apply these lessons to their lives will benefit from the blessings of this holy day.