Lag B'Omer at CBS Community Center
Friday, April 30, 2021
Thirty-three days following the first day of Passover, Jews celebrate a "minor" holiday called Lag B'Omer, the thirty-third day of the Omer. It is an oasis of joy in the midst of the sad Sefirah period which is almost unnoticed by most contemporary Jews. Yet it contains historic lessons of such great severity ― that this generation must not only unravel the mystery of Lag B'Omer but will discover that its own fate is wrapped in the crevices of its secrets.
The seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot are the days of the "Counting of the Omer," the harvest festivities which were observed in the Land of Israel when the Temple stood on Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem.
This fifty-day period should have been a time of joyful anticipation. Having experienced the Exodus from Egypt on Pesach, every Jew literally "counts the days" from the first night of Passover until Mattan Torah ― the revelation of Torah at Mt. Sinai which took place on Shavuot, exactly fifty days after the Exodus. While the Exodus marks the physical birth of the Jewish nation ― the Giving of Torah completes the process through the spiritual birth of the Jewish nation.
Each year, as we celebrate the Seder on Passover, we are commanded to "see ourselves as though each of us actually experienced the Exodus." It therefore follows that we must prepare ourselves during the Sefirah period (counting of the Omer), to once again accept the Torah on Shavuot ― to make our freedom spiritually complete.
Clearly then, the Sefirah days should have been days of joy, but instead, they are observed as a period of semi-mourning. Weddings, music and haircuts are not permitted, some do not shave during this entire period. It is on the sad side of Sefirah that we come across the holiday of Lag B'Omer, the one day during this sad period when our mourning is halted, when sadness is forbidden.
Death of Rabbi Akiva's Students
What is the reason for sadness during what should have been a period of joyful anticipation? The reason, the Babylonian Talmud tells us, [Yevamot:62:2] is that during this period, Rabbi Akiva's 24,000 students, who lived 1,850 years ago in the Roman dominated Land of Israel, died from a mysterious God sent plague. Why did they die? Because the Talmud teaches, "they did not show proper respect to one another." Lag B'Omer is celebrated on the thirty-third day because on that day the plague ended and Rabbi Akiva's students stopped dying.
This explanation leaves us with a number of difficulties and still more unanswered questions.
Why does this event, the death of Rabbi Akiva's students, tragic as it was, merit thirty-two days of mourning when greater tragedies in Jewish history, such as the destruction of both Temples or the breaking of the Stone Tablets of the Covenant by Moses, are marked by a single day of mourning. In terms of numbers, the massacres of the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, the Chemelnitsky pogroms, and the Holocaust which destroyed European Jewry and cost six million Jewish lives far overshadow the death of Rabbi Akiva's students. Yet, these tragic events are not commemorated by even one special day of mourning. Why is the death of Rabbi Akiva's students given so much more weight?
Every event in the Jewish calendar was placed there by the Divine hand because it conforms to a pre-set notion of the significance of the seasons and of history. Nature and events correspond and intermesh, certain days and periods are most suited to joy or sadness. Why does the Sefirah mourning coincide with the joyous holidays of Passover and Shavuot, which in turn coincide with the period of harvest festivities?
There also appear to be glaring inconsistencies in the story itself. What were Rabbi Akiva's students guilty of that they deserved to die? If Rabbi Akiva's students died as a result of God's punishment for their sins, why should we mourn them? Didn't they deserve their punishment?
Why is Lag B'Omer a day of "celebration"? If all that happened on Lag B'Omer was but a temporary halt in the dying, wouldn't it be more fitting to set it aside as a memorial day for the twenty-four thousand scholars who died?
What is the connection between Lag B'Omer and the revolt against the Romans by Bar Kochba and his army? And how does all of this relate to Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai, author of the mystical books of the Zohar who lived in the same era, about whom we sing on Lag B'Omer.
And finally, why are all these questions never discussed in the open, as are for example the Four Questions of the Passover Seder?
The answers to these and other questions lie shrouded in the history of a turbulent age and in the mysteries of the Jewish concept of the Messianic era.
First, we must understand that much of the material in the Talmud that deals with political matters was written with a keen sensitivity to the Roman censor. The Talmud could not speak openly concerning the political ramifications of events. In order to obtain a true picture of what happened, we must piece together the story from various historical sources and Talmudic hints. What we discover goes something like this:
The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 C.E. Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside lay in ruins from border to border. Scores of thousands died in the fierce fighting and subsequently from persecution and starvation; thousands more were sold as slaves and forced into exile. The Romans considered the Jewish nation defeated, obliterated and done for. The Roman General Titus erected a grand victory monument in Rome which stands to this day that says just that ― the famous Arch of Titus on which is inscribed Judea Capita ― Judea is kaput, finished ― done for.
But even in defeat the spiritual leaders of the Jewish people struggled to rebuild Jewish life and recreate Jewish institutions. They were so successful that around 135 C.E. a Jewish military leader named Bar Kosiba succeeded in organizing a fighting force to rid the Land of Israel of the hated Romans. Thousands rallied to his cause, including the greatest Talmudic scholar of all times, the Tanna Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef, whose insights and brilliant decisions fill the Mishnah.
Many of Rabbi Akiva's contemporaries felt that a new revolt against the Romans was doomed to failure and urged the avoidance of bloodshed. But Bar Kosiba persisted and succeeded in organizing and training a superb military force of 200,000 men. The Talmud relates that Bar Kosiba demanded that each recruit demonstrate his bravery by cutting off a finger ― when the Rabbis protested he substituted a new test, each recruit was expected to uproot a young tree while riding a horse. Such was the level of their bravery and readiness.
Rabbi Akiva disagreed with his rabbinic colleagues and won over a majority to his point of view. From the military point of view, he felt that a successful revolt was feasible. It is said by some historians that twenty percent of the population of the Roman Empire between Rome and Jerusalem was Jewish.
The pagan foundations of Rome were crumbling. Many Romans were in search of a religious alternative ― which many of them subsequently found in a mitzvah-less Christianity in the following two centuries. Many Romans were attracted to Judaism, and significant numbers converted. There were thousands ― tens of thousands of sympathizers. Some members of the Roman Senate converted to Judaism. If the large numbers of Jews who lived throughout the Roman Empire could be inspired into coordinated anti-Roman revolts, many historians believe that the prospects for toppling Rome were very real.
Proclaiming The Messiah
And if the revolts succeeded and Jews from all over the world united to return and rebuild their homeland, Rabbi Akiva believed that they could bring about the Messianic Era ― the great era of spirituality and universal peace foretold by Israel's Prophets ― the great millennia during which all Jews would return to the land of Israel, the Jerusalem Temple would be rebuilt and Israel would lead the world into an era of justice, spiritual revival, and fulfillment.
In his Laws of Kings, (Chapter 11:3) Maimonides, in discussing the Messianic era says
"Do not think that the King Messiah must work miracles and signs, create new natural phenomena, restore the dead to life or perform similar miracles. This is not so. For Rabbi Akiva was the wisest of the scholars of the Mishna and was the armor bearer of Bar Kosiba (the actual family name of Bar Kochba) the King. He said concerning Ben Kosiba that he is the King Messiah. Both he and the sages of his generation believed that Bar Kosiba was the King Messiah, until (Bar Kosiba) was killed because of his sins. Once he was killed, it became evident to them that he was not the messiah."
To Bar Kochba and his officers, all seemed to be in readiness; Rome was rotten and corrupt ― many captive nations strained at the yoke ― rebellion was in the air. Rabbi Akiva (Jerusalem Talmud: Ta'anit 4:15) gave Bar Kosiba a new name, "Bar Kochba" ― Son of the Star ― in fulfillment of the prophecy ― "a star will go forth from Jacob." Bar Kochba trained an army capable of igniting the powder keg of rebellion and Rabbi Akiva lit it with one of the most dramatic proclamations in Jewish history ― he proclaimed that Bar Kochba was the long awaited Messiah.
One of the greatest Torah teachers and leaders of all time, Rabbi Akiva could not have made this crucial and radical declaration unless he was certain. He would never have proclaimed a man Messiah unless he knew. Rabbi Akiva added a new, spiritual dimension to the war of liberation. He attempted to merge the soldiers of the sword with the soldiers of the book ― his twenty- four thousand students ― each a great Torah scholar and leader.
These outstanding scholars would become the real "army" of the Jewish people.
These outstanding scholars would become the real "army" of the Jewish people, a spiritual and moral force that would bring Torah to the entire world, overcoming anguish, suffering, and the cruel boot of the corrupt Roman Empire. They would soon inaugurate a new era of peace, righteousness, and justice, an era in which "the Knowledge of God would cover the earth as water covers the seas." The fact that the Jews were able to unite around a single leader separates this event from the great revolt of the previous century when bitterly divided factions warred with each other inside the walls of Jerusalem even as the Roman army stormed the gates.
The rebellion raged for six years. Bar Kochba's army achieved many initial victories. Many non-Jews joined Bar Kochba's army ― it is reported that it grew to 350,000 men ― more men than the Roman Army. Bar Kochba was so successful that Hadrian called in all of his best troops from England and Gaul. Rome felt threatened as never before. On Lag B'Omer, it is believed by some, Bar Kochba's army reconquered Jerusalem, and we celebrate that great event today. For four years Jewish independence was restored. Many believe that Bar Kochba actually began to rebuild the Beit Hamikdash, the Temple. Some even believe that he completed the building of the Third Temple.
Bar Koachba's Downfall
There were two Roman legions in the country when the uprising began, one in Jerusalem and one near Megido. Both were decimated by Bar Kochba's men. Reinforcements were dispatched from Trans-Jordan, Syria and Egypt but these, too, were mauled. The legion sent from Egypt, the 22nd, disappeared from the listings of military units published in Rome, and scholars speculate that it was cut up so badly, probably around Lachish, that it ceased to exist as an organized force. The Jews apparently employed guerilla tactics ― foraying from their underground lairs, ambushing convoys and striking at night.
In desperation, Hadrian sent for his best commander, Julius Severus, who was then engaged in battle at the hills of far off Wales. Severus imported legions from the lands of Britain, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria. So badly had the Romans been hurt in the bruising campaign that Severus, upon returning to Rome to report to the Senate on his success, omitted the customary formula "I and my army are well."
This was total war. In the middle of the effort to rebuild the Beit Hamikdash the tide turned and Bar Kochba lost the support of Rabbi Akiva and the Sages who backed him. What happened? Bar Kochba had murdered the sage Rabbi Elazar. He accused the great Rabbi of revealing the secret entrances of the fortress city of Betar to the Romans. It is now believed that this betrayal was the work of the Jewish Christians who wanted to undermine Bar Kochba. Rabbi Akiva then realized that Bar Kochba no longer possessed the qualities which initially led him to believe that he was the Messiah.
There was an additional spiritual dimension to the failure of the Messiah-ship of Bar Kochba as well; whether the spiritual failure of Rabbi Akiva's students was the cause ― or whether it was the failure of Bar Kochba to rise to the spiritual heights expected of the Messiah is beyond our knowledge. For then ― out of the blue, the great plague Askera descended and struck. The dream collapsed. For reasons that will probably forever remain obscure, the students of Rabbi Akiva were not considered by Heaven to have reached the supreme spiritual heights necessary to bring about the Messianic Age. As great as they were, an important factor was missing.
The Talmud tells us that "Rabbi Akiva's students didn't show proper respect one for the other." Precisely what this phrase refers to we do not know. With greatness comes heightened responsibility and with greatness comes a magnification of reward and punishment. For their failure and deficiencies ― which would certainly be counted as minor in a generation such as ours, but which were crucial for great men on their high spiritual level ― their mission was cancelled and they died a mysterious death.
With them died the Messianic hope of that era and for thousands of years to come. Bar Kochba was not a false messiah but a failed messiah. In the terrible war which followed, Bar Kochba and his army were destroyed in the great battles defending the fortress city of Betar. The war had been a catastrophe. Dodio Cassius reports the death of 580,000 Jews by Roman swords in addition to those who died of hunger and disease. Some scholars think that the bulk of the Jewish population of Judea was destroyed in battle and in subsequent massacres. One historian believes that the Jews lost a third of their number in the war, perhaps more fatalities than in the Great Revolt of the year 70.
For the survivors, the Bar Kochba uprising marked the great divide between the hope for national independence and dispersal in the Diaspora. The trauma of Betar coming after the fall of Jerusalem effected deep changes in the Jewish people. The stiff necked, stubborn, fanatically independent people that did not hesitate to make repeated suicidal lunges at the mightiest superpower of antiquity lost its warlike instincts. It would be 2,000 years before there would be a Jewish fighting force. As a result, the hope of the Jew for redemption was to be delayed for at least two thousand years. In the great and tragic defeat not only were between half a million to six hundred thousand Jews killed but the Romans were determined, once and for all to uproot the Jewish religion and the Jewish people ― to bring an end to their hopes and their dreams.
It is for this reason that we mourn today. The mourning of Sefirah is not for the students alone, but for the failure of the Jewish people to bring about the Messianic Age, for the fall of the curtain on Jewish independence, Jewish hopes and Jewish Messianic ambitions. Every anti-Semitic outbreak for which Jews suffered since that day, every pogrom, massacre, crusade, Holocaust, and banishment that took the toll of so many millions during the two thousand year long and bitter night of exile, wandering and persecution, must be traced directly to the failure of Bar Kochba ― but ultimately to the failure of the students of Rabbi Akiva. This was a tragedy of inestimable proportions to a war-ravaged world suffering under the bitter yoke of Rome as well as to the Jewish people. Rome did not fall at that time, but its fury and rage led to the exile and dismemberment of the Jewish people.
On Lag B'Omer the plague stopped, the dream was delayed, but it was not destroyed.
Yet, on that very Lag B'Omer day two thousand years ago, a new hidden light of hope emerged. In the midst of defeat, the great sage, Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai revealed to a small number of students the secrets of the mystical Zohar. In the Zohar, in its formulas, disciplines and spirituality, lie the secrets whose seed will bring about the coming of the Messiah. The Zohar's living tradition has kept that hope alive down to this very day. On Lag B'Omer the plague stopped, the dream was delayed, but it was not destroyed. It was to be nurtured through the generations ― the stirrings of its realization enliven us today.
Because Lag B'Omer deals with the secrets of the future Messianic Age, it cannot be discussed openly or understood as clearly as can the Exodus or other events of the past. Whenever we stand between Passover and Shavuot ― between our physical liberation from Egypt and our spiritual elevation during the Revelation at Sinai we recall those chilling events. For today we are also able to celebrate the liberation of Jerusalem and the site of our destroyed Temple. History is bringing together so many crucial events, ― the history of our ancient past is once again coming alive in the land of our fathers.
There are frightening parallels between our own age and the age of Rabbi Akiva and Bar Kochba. Following a frightful Holocaust which many believed would spell the end of the Jewish people, we experienced a restoration of Jewish independence ― once more did a Jewish army score miraculous victories against overwhelming odds. Following the destruction of the great European centers of Torah scholarship, we witnessed the rebuilding of yeshivot in America and in Israel. We experienced a great revival of Torah study. The teshuva movement has brought about a return to Torah for so many who strayed. Jerusalem and the Temple Mount are in our hands.
All around us world empires are tottering while despair and corruption rages. Once again, the Jewish people has been entrusted with a great and frightful opportunity. Once again we have been given the potential to recreate a Jewish civilization of Torah greatness in our own land. Will we succeed or will our efforts be aborted because of our own failures, our own inability to respect the differences within the Torah community and unite the Jewish people to our cause?
The personality of Rabbi Akiba itself offers frightful lessons and opportunities. It was Rabbi Akiva who understood that "love your fellow as you love yourself" is the over-riding principle which the Torah people must internalize if it is to achieve its goals. Rabbi Akiva, too, is the quintessential ba'al teshuva ― it was he who was forty years old and was unable to distinguish between an aleph and a bet ― it was he who rose to be Jewry's greatest Torah scholar.
Hundreds of thousands of Jews; Americans, Israelis, and Russians are today's potential Rabbi Akivas. The fate of Jewry and the achievement of Heaven's greatest goals are in the hands of this generation. Will we attempt to achieve them or will we withdraw into our own selfish cocoons by refusing to shoulder the responsibilities which history and history's God has set before us?
It is not enough to wait for the Messiah's coming; we must toil to perfect our Torah lives if we are to bring about his speedy arrival. Only if we learn from the lesson of Rabbi Akiva's students will we understand that the coming of the Messiah depends on us.