The Fire Within - Some thoughts on Lag B’Omer


Before every holiday, we as parents need to examine what messages we wish to focus on for ourselves as adults and for our children. It should not be enough to light the menorah again, or just listen to the megilla again. We need to recognize, as the Maharal explains, that we are supposed to be living a life that is like a spiral – going over the same ground every year, but always on a higher level.  

Lag B’Omer is a day that we know is filled with deep spiritual significance. Somehow, this doesn’t always seem to come across to our children. The truth is, it’s often hard for us adults to appreciate it as well.   

What is Lag B’Omer?

What is Lag B’Omer? We are familiar with two aspects of the day. First, we know that the students of Rebbe Akiva who were being decimated by a plague stopped dying on this day. As such it is celebrated as a happy day. Additionally, we know it is the yahrtzeit of Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar. How, we may ask, does this relate to us?  

The Pri Chadash on his commentary on Shulchan Aruch, asks the following question: why is Lag B’Omer a happy day? If it is because Rebbe Akiva’s students stopped dying, it didn’t make a difference because they all died in the end anyway! Imagine someone has a relative with a fatal illness. The relative recovers for a day and then relapses and passes away. It is unlikely that the person would make the day he recovered into a day of celebration. The Pri Chadash gives a cryptic answer to this question. He suggests that perhaps it is a happy day because of the five students that Rebbe Akiva got after the other 24,000 died. But if that is the reason, why celebrate on Lag B’Omer? He didn’t get those students on that day, but rather at a later date. Lag B’Omer as a happy occasion remains a mystery.  

To complicate matters, the way Lag B’Omer is celebrated is also somewhat of a mystery. When I was growing up in the New York area, Lag B’Omer was the official school sports day. We would go to a local park and play baseball and kickball and volleyball and machanyim. There were special games between different grades and between the faculty and the students. Needless to say, none of this was filled with deep religious significance.  

Weeks before Lag B’Omer, all loose wood began disappearing

Of course, I didn’t appreciate at the time how relatively healthy that experience was until I came to Eretz Yisroel. Weeks before Lag B’Omer, all loose wood began disappearing. Then wood began disappearing from construction sites, then tree trunks, furniture, household appliances and the like. Soon I began seeing them reappearing in gigantic pyres throughout my neighborhood. Some of these towered fifty feet into the air. I couldn’t imagine what would be done with them, because, having grown up in America, no one ever made their own bonfires. You needed many permits just to have a campfire, and a small one at that. Even then, only professional licensed firemakers were allowed to make the fires. The size and materials were heavily regulated. Sometimes, because of insurance reasons, children were not even allowed near the fires. We would merely watch from a safe distance, eating the hotdogs we had already cooked at home!   

What then, could these giant pyres, apparently designed to burn the remains of Greek kings, possibly mean? And to make matters worse, all the fires seemed to be constructed by children, many of them preschoolers. Shouldn’t the professional firemakers warn these children away?  

Quiet sedate Yerushalayim turned into a spectacle known as “The Night of the Burning Children.”

On the day before Lag B’Omer I began to notice frightened adults scurrying about. They were removing their laundry from their lines and closing windows and trissim, as though preparing for some natural catastrophe. And as twilight arrived I realized why. Quiet sedate Yerushalayim turned into a spectacle known as “The Night of the Burning Children.” Children, many of them young and unsupervised, set these giant pyres on fire. Some of the fires raged out of control. One year, I watched as the flames of a fire reached up to the street above and destroyed a bus shelter! Another time a fire burnt the telephone wires in another neighborhood, and it took days to repair them.   

In the morning, a haze hung over the city and the streets were covered in ash. Silently, the adults came out of hiding like the survivors after a nuclear war, prepared to rebuild the world.  

Of course, I’m exaggerating. But not to the extent, I hope, that people can’t relate to the concept. Where, as I asked earlier, is the deep spirituality in all of this?  

Rebbe Akiva

I would like to suggest the following idea. Imagine, if you will, the situation of Rebbe Akiva. An ignorant shepherd, he sets out to learn how to read at the age of forty, sitting in preschool with the little children. Slowly, he masters Tanach and the intricacies of the Oral Law. At the end of twelve years, he has gained renown as one of the leading Torah scholars, and he returns home to his loyal wife. Imagine his love and appreciation for her! She gave up wealth, ease, family, reputation- all in order to see her husband succeed in Torah.   

As he returns home he overhears a neighbor berating him to his wife. What kind of a person abandons his wife to live a life of such poverty and hardship! Rochel defiantly responds that if Akiva were here right now she would tell him to go back and learn for another twelve years. Without hesitating, without waiting to say hello to his beloved loyal wife, he turns around to fulfill her wish that he grows in Torah.  

Another twelve years pass. He is now an undisputed Torah leader of the Jewish people, with 24,000 students. He now finally returns home to his wife. Can you imagine the feelings of love and appreciation bursting from his heart? Arriving with his thousands of students, his wife tries to approach but is held back by the students until finally, Rebbe Akiva spots her. He then announces to his students that all of my Torah and your Torah belongs to her. A happy ending if there ever was one.  

And then, after Pesach one year, the plague began. By the hundreds, then by the thousands, finally by the tens of thousands, his students perish. Rebbe Akiva and the Jewish people faced over seven hundred levayos a day. Can we imagine what a loss this was for Klal Yisroel? There was no Shulchan Aruch, no Gemera, not even the Mishna! The Torah was oral, and it was entrusted to a large extent to Rebbe Akiva and his talmidim.   

When the tragedy was finally over, there wasn’t one student of Rebbe Akiva’s left alive. His life’s work had collapsed around him – all his accomplishments went up in flames; Rebbe Akiva was left in ashes. Could you really blame him if he decided that chinuch was not for him? Let him go away alone and mourn the loss of his precious students.  

But not Rebbe Akiva. He picked himself up, brushed himself off and started over again with only five students. Perhaps some people would find it hard to start over again with so little after they had had so much. Perhaps their confidence would have been shaken. Not Rebbe Akiva. Klal Yisroel needed him and so he persevered.  

Reb Yisroel Salanter spent his final day alone in a strange town, reassuring the shomer because he was frightened to be left alone with Reb Yisroel’s lifeless body.

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg in his work on the Mussar Movement, entitled “The Fire Within,” writes that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he spends the last day of his life. Reb Yisroel Salanter spent his final day alone in a strange town, reassuring the shomer because he was frightened to be left alone with Reb Yisroel’s lifeless body. The Alter of Novardek spent his, caring for his students who were dying from a plague.  

Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai knew he was dying. The last day of his life he spent with his students, working to bring down the great light of the Torah’s mystical understanding to the world. Whatever he was trying to accomplish, he didn’t believe his last day was too late. We can always do more with whatever time we have.  

I heard from my wife’s uncle, Rabbi Michel Klughaupt of Lakewood, New Jersey, the following story. An avreich needed advice on an important matter. He called HaRav Mordechai Shwab zt”l to set up an appointment. Rav Shwab asked him what day was good for him and the young man answered he was available on Monday. Rav Shwab agreed, but insisted it must be before seven in the evening. The young man said he could come at six. Rav Shwab agreed, insisting, however, that they must be finished by 7 PM sharp.   

The young man began to have regrets that he was bothering Rav Shwab, who was, after all, well on in years and not well. So on Sunday he cancelled his Monday appointment. On Tuesday morning, he read the notice in Yeshiva that Rav Mordechai Shwab had passed away the night before – at seven PM.  

Somehow this tzaddik knew how much time he had left. And he was willing to give that last hour to someone in need. Because he knew, as long as there is life, there is hope. You can still do something. It’s never too late.  

Lag B’Omer is a time to reflect on this idea. Perhaps that is what the Pri Chadash meant when he said that the simcha of Lag B’Omer is because of the five students Rebbe Akiva received afterwards. When all was consumed and there were only ashes, like the ashes that fill the sky and cover the ground on Lag B’Omer morning, Rebbe Akiva didn’t give up. And at night, when the fires blaze, we can focus on the great light that Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai, one of those five students, managed to bring down on the day of his death. A tzaddik shows us that life is a gift, and death need not be a tragedy when we use every moment to bring down the light to the world.  

By Lag B’Omer, the Omer is two thirds over.

By Lag B’Omer, the Omer is two thirds over. Some think that they may not have used the time well to prepare for Matan Torah, that it may be too late. Maybe, they think, they will just have to try again next year. So we remind them that it’s never too late. Even from the ashes, life can grow again. As long as there is life, there is hope.  

If this makes sense to you, then share it with your children. Children are perennial optimists and can often dream of the future better than us. They can focus on the hope that we can repair what has been damaged, that we can correct the mistakes we have made ourselves and by extension, the mistakes of all klal yisroel.  

Remember that there is great amount of spiritual power inherent in Lag B’Omer. We must work to make sure that if our children have off from school, they find time to daven and learn and not just play games. Let’s use the opportunity to tell the stories of Rebbe Akiva and Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai on Lag B”Omer, making them meaningful for our children and ourselves, so this year will not be another Lag B’Omer, but rather a greater Lag B’Omer for us and our families.