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Kiddush Hashem and the Light of Lag BaOmer

By: Rav Yonny Sack

Parashat Emor contains the foundational mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem and its opposite, Chillul Hashem in the famous verse:

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You shall not desecrate My holy Name, and I shall be sanctified in the midst of the Bnei Yisrael - I am God who sanctifies you. (Vayikra 22:32)

While the mitzvah and concept of Kiddush Hashem has varied expressions and scope, the Gemara in masechet Brachot, learns an important halachic principle out from this same pasuk, teaching the following: 

And so too said Rav Ada Bar Ahava: from where do we learn that an individual cannot say Kedusha? As it says “And I shall be sanctified in the midst of Bnei Yisrael” (therefore) any matter of Kedusha must not be recited with less than ( a minyan) of ten… ( Brachot 21b)

 

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The simple understanding of the Gemara is that Hashem’s name is truly sanctified when in the midst of Bnei Yisrael and the minimum for a congregation of Bnei Yisrael is a minyan of 10, which the Gemara learns out from the spies in parashat Shlach. 

With this teaching in mind, let us shed some light on the up-coming celebration of Lag BaOmer this Tuesday.  This is a day of which many Jews around the world are unaware and even for those familiar with the day, many are not sure exactly what we are celebrating or why. We don’t say tachanun, we light bonfires (in non-Corona times) and we can finally cut our hair, sing and dance and celebrate. But what exactly are we celebrating? After all, on the surface, it seems a little strange. This is the day that Rabbi Akiva's students stopped dying of a plague and also the day that years later one of Rabbi Akiva's students - the holy sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai - passed away. Our People have since celebrated on this day with bonfires, music and various festivities. 

To understand a deeper dimension of Lag B’Omer and Rabbi Shimon’s place in it, let us first explore a brief introduction to the deeper wisdom of Torah known as the Kabbala, which Rabbi Shimon played a major role in revealing 1.

Although Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is well known as the teacher of the holy Zohar, the primary source of Kabbalistic wisdom, the mystical tradition of Kabbala did not start with Rabbi Shimon.  The Kabbala is the pnimiut – inner essence of the Torah wisdom, the level of Sod – secret -  and was known from the time of Adam HaRishon and understood by the Avot 2. However it was Moshe Rabbeinu who “kibel” (received ) the Torah from Hashem on Sinai and in his humility and greatness was like an empty vessel able to be the ultimate receptacle for all of Torah- hidden and revealed. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains that the Kabbala, literally means “ the received” (mystical tradition) as it is about total receiving, becoming completely infused with the Torah and connecting with it on the deepest possible level.  

Moshe passed on the disciplines and methods of prophecy to Yehoshua his student. These keys constituted the Kabbala tradition. The Kabbala was taught and transmitted through the generations, guarded by the master prophets and their select disciples.  After the Temple was destroyed the Romans sought to crush any Jewish strongholds that remained. With violent persecution during the 2nd Century CE the Romans wanted to extinguish the light of Torah. As a result, the Torah, in all its Kabbalistic depth, was in danger. 

Rabbi Akiva was considered the greatest Sage of the time and a master of both the revealed and hidden parts of the Torah. There was also Rabbi Nechunia Ben HaKanah and his disciple the High Priest Rabbi Yishmael  ben Elisha who put into writing the Kabbalistic teachings called the Sefer HaBahir (the book of Illumination)  and the Pirkei Haichalot Rabatai (the Greater book of the Divine Chambers) teaching various Kabbalistic depths of Torah on meditative techniques and prophecy.

It is at this time when Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai lived. He was a student of Rabbi Akiva and lived during these difficult times when the Romans were murdering the great Sages. As the Gemara in Shabbos (Daf Lamed Gimel – LAG) describes,  Rabbi Akiva hid out in a cave to escape the Romans and then with Divine Inspiration he revealed the hidden wisdom that he had received to his disciples. The Zohar (Book Of Splendor/Radiance), one of the main pillars of the Kabbala, was taught by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai around this time of 135CE. (Inner Space).

The Zohar remains the foundation of much of the Kabbalistic tradition and has had an enormous impact on the Jewish people to this day. It was therefore Rabbi Shimon who was chosen by Hashem as a principle instrument in the revelation of the hidden light of wisdom to the Jewish people.

On the day when Rabbi Shimon left this lower world, Lag BaOmer, we celebrate. Why? And what is the connection to Kiddush Hashem in this week’s parasha?

The Zohar permeates with teachings about Hashem’s incredible love for the Jewish People and the secret of Unity - Yichud. That in essence Hashem, the Jewish People and His Torah are all one (Zohar). Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Shimon’s master, was the one who taught how lucky the Jewish people are to be considered the children of Hashem, loved like a father to his son. He taught “Avinu” (our father) first and then “ Malkeinu” our King and he also taught "Ve Ahavta LeReAcha Camocha - Zeh Clal Gadol BaTorah" - that Loving your fellow Jew is a great underlying principle of the Torah.

Therefore, the Bnei Yissachar explains that Rabbi Shimon’s teachings in the Zohar in all their Kabbalistic Mystical depth are expressing and revealing a constant message of Hashem’s indescribable and infinite love for us (Bnei Yissachar, Iyar 3:3 quoted in Netivot Shalom) and our inter-connectivity with each other. 

On Lag BaOmer, it is these two ideas that infuse the day with its meaning and holiness. But how?

In order to love and be loved you need to be able to receive. We need to learn how to receive the greatest gift of all - the Presence of Hashem - relationship and closeness to the Creator of all. To receive this love we must make space for Him in our lives and thus learn how to be a kli Mekabel, a vessel of receiving. This is the essence of Kabbala. It is the pnimiut - inner essence of Torah - that focuses us on the face to face - 'Panim El Panim' (Shmot 33:11) relationship with Hashem and others that occurs when we make space.

The love that Hashem has for us and the love we should have for each other is what we are celebrating on LagBaOmer. It is a celebration of Rabbi Shimon’s teachings, a celebration of the light of Kabbala, (hence the bonfire- Zohar means radiance ) and a tikun, a rectification for the lack of honour that Rabbi Akiva's students had for each other that lead to the plague that caused their deaths (Yevamot 62b).  As such, Lag BaOmer, and the reminder of our interconnectivity that it brings, allows us to truly mekadesh Shem Shamayim, sanctify Hashem’s name, as we learned above, AMIDST BNEI YISRAEL, for only when we are Bnei Yisrael, united and connected, are we able to produce the ultimate holiness. 

Especially in Corona times, with our social distancing reminding us of how much we miss and need each other, may we merit to unite and finally experience the greatest Kiddush Hashem which will come with the Moshiach BimHera Beyameinu.

Shabbat Shalom and have a beautiful and festive, holy Lag BaOmer.

Yonny Sack

1. This introduction is almost entirely on Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan zt”l’s English introduction to the Kabbala called “Inner Space”.

2. Avraham Avinu is for example known to be the author of Sefer Yetzira, the Book of Formation, one of the oldest and most complex Kabbalistic texts.

 

 

 

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