When I lived in Eretz Yisrael, every year on the morning after Lag B’omer, my apartment in Yerushalayim smelled like smoke from all the bonfires which burned the night before. I would still feel the heat of the bonfires near the forest when I rode the Egged bus in Har Nof in the morning. What’s the big deal about bonfires on Lag B’omer?
The Bnei Yissaschar explains that the day that Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai taught the Zohar, the sun didn’t set, thereby lighting up the night. We therefore light bonfires to commemorate the bright light that came from the Torah of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Lag B’omer itself starts the final third of the Omer, which totals 49 days from Pesach to Shavuos. The Omer is divided into trimesters. The second trimester ends on day thirty-two, which is the Gematria of “lev” (heart.) In this part of the Omer, we focus on developing the lev. The last trimester is the one closest to Shavuos, when the light of Torah was revealed to the world. The Shem Mishmuel says just like the sun starts to illuminate the world before the day starts (at dawn), so the period of time prior to an event receives light from the upcoming period. The last trimester starts receiving light from Shavuos, when the Torah was given.
It’s during the first thirty-two days of the Omer, ending on Lag B’omer, that the disciples of Rabbi Akiva perished. They died because they did not have sufficient respect for each other; they were held to very high standards since they represented the future of Torah observance for the next generation. This teaches us the lesson that an essential part of our Torah observance must include focusing on developing our compassion and caring for others. Lag B’omer starts our focus on enhanced Torah learning and reaffirming our unwavering commitment to performing Hashem’s mitzvos. The purpose of leaving Mitzrayim was to receive the Torah on the Sixth of Sivan. Part of our preparation for this event includes the custom of studying Pirkei Avos on Shabbos afternoons during the Omer period, as these Mishnayos focus on character development. With all this background in mind, we have a new understanding of why precisely on Lag B’omer was this light of Torah revealed.
There’s an amazing insight from the B’nei Yissaschar who says Rebbi Yochanan ben Zakai told his top five disciples to discern how to achieve the best path in life. Rebbi Eliezer ben Aruch said it was to have a “good heart.” Rebbi Yochanan said this was the best approach because it included all the other opinions. A good heart in Hebrew is ‘lev tov,’ whose numerical value is 49. Lev is 32 and tov is 17. In the first 32 days of the Omer, we work on our heart — having care and concern for others. In the last part of the Omer, we prepare for the giving of the Torah on Shavuos.
The Bnei Yissaschar teaches us a fundamental idea. The first time the word tov is written in the Torah is at the completion of the first day of creation. “Hashem saw the light was tov / good.” The word tov is the 33rd word in the Torah. What was so good and special about the light? Rashi says this was not the light of the sun, which wasn’t created until the fourth day. This was a special light that gave tremendous illumination and clarity of purpose regarding how Hashem operates the world. This light was so powerful, one could see clear across the world. But Hashem saw that this light would be dangerous in the hands of evil people, so He hid it in the Torah. If someone applies himself exceptionally well in his Torah learning, he attains this clarity. Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai revealed elements of this clarity with the Torah he taught to the world.
Now we can better appreciate our bonfires on Lag B’omer. No matter how deep the darkness around us, learning Torah will illuminate and give clarity and purpose to all. Dovid Hamelech prayed for special divine help in understanding Torah as expressed in the pasuk in Tehillim – Gal einai – open my eyes so that I may see the wonders of your Torah. The three-letter word “gal” has the same letters as Lag, just spelled backwards, and they both have the numerical value of 33, alluding to the special revelation of Torah that starts with the period of Lag B’omer. There is nothing that illuminates more…than Torah.
Now is the time to make a commitment to enhance our Torah study. May Hashem grant us the great clarity of purpose to follow his Torah and mitzvos. And as we conclude the first blessing of Bircas Krias Shema each morning, may we merit the clarity from the New Light that Hashem will bring to Tzion!
This middle of this week’s parsha enumerates the different commandments regarding the shalosh regalim, or the three festivals we celebrate each year. When talking about the festival of Shavuos which occurs fifty days after Pesach, the Torah calls it “Atzeres”, literally meaning “a restraining.” Rashi explains this with a mashal, that it can be likened to a king who invites his sons to a seudah which was set to take place in a set number of days wishes to “restrain” them from leaving for just a short time longer. So too by Shavuos, HaShem wishes to keep us by him for “just one more day.”
Along this line of reasoning, the Ramban says that in reality, Shavuos is just an extension of Pesach. It’s when HaShem wishes to keep us around for just a short while longer from the “Seudah” which was the chag of Pesach. In fact, the Ramban explains that the days of the Omer which we currently find ourselves in are really like one long Chol Hamoed with the chag finally climaxing over Shavuos.
What does this mean? In what way is Shavuos an extension of Pesach?
The general idea of Chol Hamoed by Pesach and Shvi’i shel Pesach is the completion of the Yetzia from Mitzrayim which began on the first days of Pesach. As the Torah says by Kriyas Yam Suf, “And HaShem saved Bnei Yisrael on that day.” Without Kriyas Yam Suf the Yetziah from Mitzrayim wasn’t complete; even though we left the physical subjugation of our tormentors, there was still something lacking. Kriyas Yam Suf is what completed the process. Before Kriyas Yam Suf, the Egyptians were technically able to run after us and force us to return. The true freedom of the Yetzia was therefore not yet complete because we were still in a state where it was technically possible to revert back to our status as slaves. Only after Kriyas Yam Suf did it become impossible for us to return to our status as slaves in Mitzrayim, and therefore only then was there a true Yetzia from the shibud of Mitzrayim.
This is what Chol Hamoed and the last day of Pesach represent. A culmination and climax to what had already begun. It completed the process of the Yetziah, for now there was no going back; there was no returning to our lives of slavery.
As we all know, the purpose of the Yetziah from Mitzrayim was in order to become bnei chorin, a free people. When we were slaves in Egypt, there were two areas in which the Egyptians enslaved us. We were physically slaves, and we were spiritually slaves. Besides for having to work day and night for the Egyptians, we had descended to the 49th level of Tumah. We were nearly as impure as humanly possible, devoid of any ability to connect with holiness. The Geulah from Mitzrayim worked to remove us from these two distinct areas of slavery. We became physically free, and we also became free of the spiritual shackles which bound us. As an aside, which of these two areas served as the focal point of the Geulah is seemingly a machlokes between Rav and Shmuel in the Gemara. The Gemara says that when we speak out the haggadah on Pesach, we begin with words of g’nai and we end with shvach. The machlokes between Rav and Shmuel is whether we should start with “avadim hayinu” (which remembers the physical slavery) and climax with “and HaShem took us out from there”, or if we should start with “our forefathers worshipped avodah zara (a representation of the beginning of a spiritual “slavery”) and culminating with our closeness to HaShem. The simplest explanation of the argument is whether or not the focal point should be the geulah from the physical slavery or the freedom of the nefesh which resulted from the Yetziah.
On Shavuos we remember and relive Kabbalos Hatorah when we stood at Har Sinai and received all of the various instructions for living life and attaining a closeness with HaShem. When the Ramban calls Shavuos an extension of Pesach, what he means to say is that the entire Yetziah of Mitzrayim was for a purpose. It was to be truly free individuals. Whether to become a physical ben chorin or a ruchniyus-dik ben chorin, the Yetziah was to make us free. The climax in attaining that true freedom only came when we received the Torah.
When we received the Torah, something about us changed. We weren’t the same people as we were before. We became separated, a nation with a different role and purpose than every other nation on Earth. We became a people connected with a different and deeper reality than our non-Jewish counterparts.
This was the true freedom. When we left Mitzrayim, it was only scratching the tip of the iceberg. We began the process of freedom, but we still lived in this world. Even though we believed in HaShem with every fiber of our being, something was lacking. That connection to the deeper dimensions of reality, the ability to look at the world and see more that just the physical structures which our eyes beheld didn’t exist. Only when we received the Torah were we able to connect to a deeper consciousness. Only with the Torah were we able to truly ascend and become a completely different people than the other nations.
This is why Shavuos is a culmination of Pesach. Once we received the Torah, there was no going back. We can’t return to the status we held before Kabbolas Hatorah. The freedom was realized and internalized. Whether an actualization of a spiritual freedom or even a physical one penetrated in full, we became a people with a truly different genetic makeup than every other nation on Earth.
Our avodah is to realize this inherent difference. Our world has consistently been plagued by the influences of the outside world. Whether it be from television or movies, we’ve allowed the other nations of the world to dictate a large portion of our moral compass. And it’s a tragedy. We cannot be an “Or Lagoyim” if we keep on trying to be like them. We end up following instead of leading by example. We need to realize that we are different. Our connection to a deeper reality is what separates us. It’s what frees us. Only once we truly internalize this can we properly feel the cheirus which started on Pesach. Only once we truly understand this can we live the type of life we are supposed to and serve as an example for positive change in the world.