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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Emor/Pesach Sheni/Lag Ba'Omer 5775 "To See Past"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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Rebbitzin Sheila Feinstein, wife of Rabbi Reuven Feinstein shlita, related the following story about her esteemed father-in-law, the great Torah leader, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt’l[1]:

“One year a few hours prior to Yom Kippur, we went to my father-in-law’s apartment to bring him and my mother-in-law to Staten Island for the holy day. As we all descended in the elevator, an elderly man, his head uncovered, hesitantly approached my father-in-law and wished him a good year. My father-in-law warmly returned the blessing. Delighted with the response the man added, “And I wish you a healthy year as well, Rabbi.” My father-in-law responded with his shining countenance, “May you too be blessed with a year of good health, success and much nachas from your family. And may you merit greeting Moshiach.”

“The elderly man was overwhelmed by the encounter. As my father-in-law was entering the car, the elderly man commented to me, “Look at how the Rabbi treated me as if I was someone special, like a ‘somebody’, even though I am not religious.’”

“During the drive to Staten Island I repeated the man’s remark to my father-in-law. My father-in-law curtly responded, “Ober er iz a Yid – But he is a Jew!”

“Incidentally, there is an unknown epilogue to the story: That elderly man’s grandchildren are religious and learning in yeshiva.”

The holiday of Lag BaOmer serves not only as a respite from the practices of mourning observed during the weeks of the counting of the Omer, but as a deeply joyous day. It is an enigmatic holiday in the sense that it is a celebration of a yahrtzeit. Whereas normally the anniversary of the day of the death of a righteous person is more solemn and reflective, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s yahrtzeit is celebrated intensely. In addition, the celebration of the life and accomplishments of Rabbi Shimon is inextricably bound to the celebration of the life and accomplishment of his holy teacher, Rabbi Akiva[2].

The commentators expend great efforts to explain the depth and meaning of the joyous holiday. Still, the day remains shrouded in mystery, a celebration of the hidden and esoteric.

The gemara[3] relates the incredible epic of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. When the Roman government[4] was informed that Rabbi Shimon had made disparaging remarks about the Romans, they set a death warrant against Rabbi Shimon. Rabbi Shimon and his son Elazar sought refuge in a remote cave.

The gemarah continues, “A miracle occurred and a carob tree and a wellspring of water were created for them. They would remove their garments and sit up to their necks in sand. The whole day they studied; when it was time for prayers they robed, covered themselves, prayed, and then put off their garments again, so that they should not wear out. Thus they dwelt twelve years in the cave.

“Then Elijah the Prophet came and stood at the entrance to the cave and exclaimed: "Who will inform the son of Yochai that the emperor is dead and his decree annulled?" So they emerged. Seeing a man plowing and sowing, they exclaimed: "They forsake eternal life and engage in temporal life!" Wherever they cast their eyes upon was immediately incinerated. A heavenly echo came forth and announced: "Have you emerged to destroy My world? Return to your cave!"

“So they returned and lived there another twelve months, saying, "The punishment of the wicked in purgatory is limited to twelve months." A heavenly echo then came forth and said, "Go forth from your cave!"

“…On the eve of the Sabbath before sunset, they saw an old man holding two bundles of myrtle and running at twilight. "What are these for?" they asked him. "They are in honor of the Shabbos," he replied. "But one should suffice you?" they asked. "One is for 'Remember [the Shabbos day' (Exodus 20:8)] and one is for 'Keep [the Shabbos day'[5]]."Said Rabbi Shimon to his son: "See how precious the mitzvos are to the Jewish People." Thereupon their minds were put at ease.”

The sequence of events is perplexing. If after twelve years in the cave they were unable to fathom how others could live a physical existence, how did a thirteenth year help? If anything, after an additional year they had reached even greater levels and would have an even harder time readjusting to physical life?

Rabbi Baruch BenTzion Twersky[6] explained that when Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar emerged from the cave after twelve years they had achieved angelic levels of spirituality. Angels have a difficult time understanding man’s proclivity to sin because they are completely spiritual beings devoid of earthly desires and evil inclinations. When Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar emerged from the cave their physical earthly component had been so dulled that they no longer understood how people could be drawn and influenced by physical pleasures and pursuits. Therefore, they had to spend an extra year in the cave to build themselves to an even higher level. After that thirteenth year they transcended the level of angels.

The Tomer Devorah explains that G-d is called “מלך עלוב - the degraded King” and that is His greatest praise. He explains that if a king, who has the power to act as he pleases, is informed that one of his citizens is about to rebel against him, he would dispatch his officers to arrest the man, and immediately quash the rebellion.

G-d, the King of Kings, however, not only does not punish immediately with the proverbial bolt of lightning, but He grants us the ability to sin and act against His Will. G-d "degrades" Himself, so to speak, in order to give us the prerogative whether to accept upon ourselves His yoke or not. Properly utilizing our ability to choose is what brings ultimate sanctification and glory to G-d’s Name. His greatness is that He grants us that latitude, despite the fact that we often choose poorly.

When Rabbi Shimon emerged after that thirteenth year in the cave he had reached a transcendent level of spirituality because he was able to accept the faults and failings of others. To bear the follies and idiocies of people is a Divine attribute. It was only when Rabbi Shimon had achieved that level of understanding that he was able to permanently leave the cave to rejoin society.

Often a teacher who is an expert in the subject matter about which he is teaching will be a lousy teacher. The teacher’s tremendous fluency and profundity make it impossible for him to adequately explain the subject matter to novices who lack much background.

The greatness of Rabbi Shimon was that despite the fact that he reached such extreme levels of holiness, he was still able to live among the masses and inspire them to develop a deeper closeness with their Creator. So great was Rabbi Shimon’s influence that throughout his life a rainbow never appeared in the sky[7]. His own saintliness had an effect on his entire generation and he raised them up spiritually.

At the conclusion of Parshas Emor, the Torah relates the tragic story about the man who blasphemed the Name of G-d. The nation was unsure how to proceed and they placed him in a guarded room, awaiting G-d’s instruction. Moshe asked G-d what the appropriate punishment was and G-d responded that he was to receive the death penalty. Then G-d continued by instructing Moshe to relate to the nation a slew of laws pertaining to other crimes and damages, such as murder, property damage, and personal injury. Only after stating those (seemingly tangential) laws does the Torah relate that man was indeed executed.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt’l explained that by instructing Moshe about those other laws at this point, G-d was teaching a moral lesson: Any person who does not love every Jewish person - no matter how lowly - to the degree that even property of a Jew is dear to him, is unfit to be a member of the court, or to carry out the death penalty.

Only one who has a deep appreciation for the inviolability of life and has an internal abhorrence for injury or damage is worthy to preside over cases involving the welfare, or lives, of others.

Rabbi Feinstein himself was surely fit to offer such an explanation for he lived his life in that manner. He saw the value of every person and made them feel special, despite his extreme personal greatness and incredible sagacity.

My mother related to me an incident that happened when I was a toddler living on the Lower East Side. One day, I was playing with a close friend of mine, who was Rabbi Feinstein’s grandson, in the lobby of my apartment building. Our mothers stood nearby waiting for the school bus to bring our older brothers home from school. The apartment door opened and in walked Rabbi Feinstein. Upon seeing his grandson, he immediately gave him a kiss. Then he turned to me and the other children in the room and warmly patted each of us on the head before entering the elevator.

Whenever people who remember Rabbi Feinstein talk about him they nostalgically say, “That was Reb Moshe!” There simply is nothing more to say.

The joy of Lag Ba’Omer stems from the realization that no matter how low we are and how far we have drifted, we are always able to reconnect. However, there is one important caveat. The legacy of Rabbi Shimon, that ability to always reconnect ourselves with G-d, is only applicable if we strive and search for it. One who waits for a jolt of inspiration to hit him, is tragically doomed to remain in his sullenness and despair. That is the message of Pesach Sheni.

Those who were ritually impure and could not offer the Korbon Pesach because of extenuating circumstances, were completely exempt from doing so. But they were unhappy with their exemption. They felt shortchanged by their inability to perform a mitzvah and so they gathered around Moshe to bemoan their lost opportunity. In the merit of their desire to perform the mitzvah, they were granted a second opportunity to offer the Korbon Pesach on the fourteenth day of Iyar.

Pesach Sheni symbolizes a Jew’s un-quenching pining to be close to G-d in any way possible. It touches the inner core of our souls, where, untainted by our external desires, we genuinely desire nothing other than to feel the Divine Embrace. “כאיל תערוג על אפיקי מים כן נפשי תערוג אליך אלקים צמאה נפשי לאלקים לקל ח י – As a ram pines for rivulets of water so does my soul pine towards you, my G-d. My soul yearns to G-d, the living G-d[8].”

Pesach Sheni precedes Lag BaOmer, symbolizing that the joy of Lag BaOmer can only be achieved by one who understands the essence of Pesach Sheni. Only one who seeks that connection can merit it, no matter on what level he is on.

Lag BaOmer has a special place in the heart of Klal Yisroel, especially in exile. The day celebrates our omnipresent ability to connect with G-d. The soul is analogous to a flame which seems to jump upwards from its wick, symbolizing the soul’s desire to return to its celestial source. The bonfires of Lag BaOmer symbolize this idea as well. The huge flames shoot upwards, with dance-like movement, illuminating the darkness of the night which engulfs it. What a beautiful analogy to our souls, and how appropriate that we invoke that symbolism on the day of the celebration of the life of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

“See how precious the mitzvos are to the Jewish People."

“My soul yearns to G-d, the living G-d”

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[1] From an article in Binah Magazine, October 27, 2008

[2] Rabbi Tzadok Hakohain (Pri Tzaddik) writes that in truth the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Akiva would be celebrated as well, were it not for the tragic circumstances surrounding his death.

[3] Shabbos 33b - It is worthy to note that the saga of Rabbi Shimon, the source of the celebration of Lag BaOmer- the thirty-third day of the Omer, is recorded on page 33.

[4] who had control over Eretz Yisroel at the time

[5] Deuteronomy 5:12

[6] Lag Baomer 5756

[7] Yerushalmi Berachos 9:1 (a rainbow is a symbol that G-d is angry with the actions of man). Many commentators explain that the reason for the custom of holding a bow and arrow on Lag BaOmer is connected with this point. The bow has the same semi-circle shape as a rainbow.

[8] Tehillim 42

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