Chagim - Jewish Holidays

Lag Ba’Omer – The Message of the Lost Students

May 12, 2009
A bonfire is lit in Jerusalem in honor of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the author of the holy Zohar.
A bonfire is lit in Jerusalem in honor of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the author of the holy Zohar.

Each year, the Jewish people as a whole, commemorate the loss of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students, by abstaining from things that would make us happy. We don’t listen to music, shave, or get haircuts.

What went wrong? What happened? Why do we mourn something that we didn’t do?

The Talmud teaches us, that during these days, Rabbi Akiva, lost a lifetimes work of students, during his life. Why did they die? “Because they did not act respectfully with each other”. So many thousands of Rabbi’s and Torah scholars lost their lives for the mere fact that they did not respect one another!

So why must we mourn? The various rabbis throughout the centuries have each given their own answers, each explaining what exactly went wrong and why there was disrespect between the greatest of our Sages. Yet, I would like to give a different explanation, and one that might still explain why we ourselves, each year, must internalize this story, by mourning something so many thousands of years later.

One of Rabbi Akiva’s most famous teachings, is “Love your friend as yourself, this is a great fundamental of the Torah”. Rabbi Akiva lived and breathed this teaching – how could his students be so blind as to act in the exact opposite manner?

There was a level of kanaut, zealousness, among the students of Rabbi Akiva. Each one held on to the words of his teacher with such passion and fervor, that he could not stand someone else’s interpretation of his Rabbi’s teachings. It was not hatred – it was the passion to which they clung to the Torah of their one Rabbi, refusing to accept anyone else’s views or beliefs.

Our Master, Moshe Rabbeinu, was given the Holy Torah on Mount Sinai. Since then, the Jewish people have embraced the Torah lovingly, as the word of Hashem. Yet, in the past generations, when the light has been removed from our eyes, and unfortunately, there have been different, legitimate beliefs as to how to approach Torah, we have fought amongst each other, instead of acknowledging that this is how the Torah was meant to be. Judaism is not a religion of right and wrong, black and white, and one who thinks such is merely a fool.

Throughout the Talmud, we find the great Sages, Hillel and Shamai, fought endlessly. They fought until the point where according to each others Halachic calculations, they considered certain offspring of the other mamzerim, illegitimate children! Yet, as the Talmud tells us, they were best of friends, and the children and students of Hillel, married those of Shamai, and vice versa. That was a fight that was for the sake of Heaven.

Yet, the Jewish people today, seem to still be plagued by this petty fighting amongst ourselves. How often do we hear people saying that another rabbi, or group of Jews is “wrong”? How many times do we hear of people who don’t pray in another groups synagogue? How long will we continue to make the mistake of Rabbi Akiva’s students?

The Sanzer Rebbe always said “whoever says that they have only one Rebbe, I swear, that I will uproot them from this world, and take them out of the World to Come!”. The way of Judaism, has never, in our history, to ignore and disinterest ourselves in other, legitimate Torah views.

My Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yaakov Peretz shlit”a, said he remembers the days when everyone quoted and admired certain great Rabbi’s which today are no longer quoted in the halls of Torah study, and it pains him so much to see how this new generation, has turned everything into a fight – a war of right and wrong. In Halacha, it is all about arguing and disagreeing – yet understanding that each view has a valid place in G-d’s Torah.

Yet, unfortunately, we see it today, with our very own eyes. I dare to relate the following thought, but then again, it would be wrong for me to hold it in.

This Pesach, San Diego merited to have a world renowned Rabbi in its midst, for a few holy days. People flocked by the hundreds, to receive advice and blessing. The statistics that were calculated, were totally blown off the charts. Thank G-d, I personally spoke to so many people who were genuinely uplifted and inspired. How praiseworthy are the People of Israel.

Yet, somewhere, there still lay a dark shadow, one that would cause even the saintly students of Rabbi Akiva to cringe. There was a small group of people, who decided that it was wrong to go and fulfill the mitzvah of greeting a distinguished Torah scholar. They even had the audacity to do so, in the name of respecting their own Rabbi’s honor. It pained me to see, how far we are removed from the petty arguments that have separated us for generations, yet people who are too simple and ignorant to understand them, have kept them up to this very day.

I call out to you, on this Lag Ba’Omer, a day in which we rejoice that these holy students stopped dying. Remember that true Judaism, is the one of “seventy faces to the Torah”! We must love and respect each other, even though we may disagree. Unfortunately though, the reason we are still here in exile, are because there are still those Jews who think that they, in their insolence, know better than authentic Judaism.

They are the answer. They are the reason we still mourn. They are the people who do not understand Judaism, thus try so hard to make what little they do understand, the only Judaism.

I rejoice this Lag Ba’Omer, because I know that with G-d’s help, I will always try my best to cling to our seventy-faced Torah. And I invite you all, to come and join me, and hold the banner of Torah high – the one that was given to us on Mount Sinai, and that we will merit to hear soon from the mouth of Mashiach, amen!

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