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Lag B'Omer

Wednesday, 22 May, 2019 - 6:26 pm


Tonight and tomorrow we celebrate Lag B’Omer.  It is a day of celebration for two major events in our history.  I’ll get to that in a moment, but there is an interesting question about the name of the holiday.  Lag B’Omer means the 33rd day of the Omer.  Lag in Hebrew is spelled with the letters lamed (numerical value 30 and gimel (numerical value 3), so the first word is actually a number, 33.  Omer refers to the 49 days – seven weeks that we count from Pesach to Shavuot, remembering and recreating the counting that the Jews leaving Egypt did in anticipation of receiving the Torah.  The purpose of the counting was, and is, to transform ourselves from the exile mentality, being slaves to the world around us, and to free ourselves to connect to our true purpose, as messengers of Hashem to transform the world.  The way we do this is by transforming each of our 49 character traits, one day at a time.  Lag B’Omer is on the 33rd day of this count.  It is also the 18thday of Iyar. The fact that the name of the holiday is its name in the Omer, tells us that there is a real connection between the Omer and the holiday.

As I said before, there were two events that happened on this day, both in the same era, in the times of the Roman Empire.   Rabbi Akiva had 24,000 students, who died in a horrible plague of diphtheria over a period of 33 days during the Omer.  So the 33rdday of the Omer is significant in that story, because it was that day that the plague stopped.  While the significance of 33 days is apparent, this still leaves the question open, why is the holiday identified by the day in the Omer and not as the 18th of Iyar. 

The Rebbe explains that there is a special connection between the Omer and the second event that we celebrate, the passing of the great sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.  We “celebrate” his passing because on the day a great sage passes, all his life work comes together and rises above, creating a powerful impact on the world.  Rabbi Shimon’s impact on all future generations was so great that we still celebrate this day in our time.  In Israel tens of thousands of people, maybe more, visit his grave in the village of Meron, and Jewish communities everywhere mark the day with bonfires, music, dancing and feasting - on food and on the Torah and deep secrets of Kabbalah that Rabbi Shimon taught.  Why is this day specifically connected to the Omer and therefore called Lag B’Omer?

As usual, the full explanation is beyond the scope of this article, but I will just write a point that will hopefully give us an insight into the Kabbalistic connection between Rabbi Shimon and the counting of the Omer.  (The Kabbalah is especially relevant today, since Rabbi Shimon was the first to reveal to others the Kabbalah that had until then never been spoken beyond the one or two leaders of each generation.)  As I said before, the purpose of counting the Omer is to refine our character traits, one day for each of the 49 traits.  (See more on this here.)  We are composed of two parts, the Divine spark and the animal tendencies.  The Divine spark is tuned into holiness and wants to be involved only in spiritual pursuits.  The animal drive within us, known as the animal soul, wants only physical and material things.  This leads the animal soul into self-centeredness, selfishness and arrogance, to name a few.  So during the Omer, in preparation for receiving the Torah, we work on refining our character.  And while we may think that the “animal soul” as the lower spiritually than the divine spark, it is precisely by refining the animal tendencies within us and harnessing them to the soul that we connect with the highest levels of holiness.  This is because Hashem’s purpose in creating the universe and the human is for that purpose: the refinement of the physical and its unification with the spiritual.

Rabbi Shimon personified this concept of the unification of the highest spiritual levels and the physical world.  He is described as a sage in such a high level that his peers and students, great sages themselves, could not relate to his holiness.  This is the mystical reason that he spent many years in a cave studying Torah, because his spiritual level was beyond the world.  Nevertheless, his students did ultimately manage to connect with him, and it was specifically through the inspiration of his greatness and holiness that they were able to transform the physical world itself and bring unity between the physical and the spiritual. 

The work of fusing the physical world with the highest spiritual energy that was set into motion by Rabbi Shimon and the writing of his book of Zohar will be completed with the coming of Moshiach.  Lag B’Omer is therefore an auspicious time for this to happen.  Looking forward.

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