The mitzvah of counting the Omer is found in this week’s parsha. The posuk (Vayikra 23:15) states, “Usefartem lochem mimochoras haShabbos… And You shall count seven complete weeks from the day the Korban Omer is brought until after the seventh Shabbos, you shall count fifty days.”
Apparently, the days of Sefirah are about counting. Why is it that in our time, many people count the Omer every night, but think that the days of Sefirah are about aveilus for the passing of the talmidim of Rabi Akiva?
The mourning aspects of the Sefirah period have so taken over the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuos that we can sometimes forget that there is more to Sefirah than refraining from haircuts and listening to music. In fact, Sefirah represents a countdown to kabbolas haTorah, and, as such, is a time to prepare ourselves and make ourselves worthy of the Torah.
The period of Sefirah is blessed with awesome light that is not present the rest of the year (Maharal, Nesiv HaTorah 12). This ohr increases daily along with the levels of Torah, until it reaches a climax on Shavuos, when the Torah was given. In fact, as we count Sefirah, we say, “Hayom,” because yom, day, is an expression of light, and we make the brocha and thank Hashem for granting us the light of this specific day of the Omer, as every day, more light is revealed as we proceed along the path to Torah (Derech Mitzvosecha).
Concurrent with the light and increased levels of Torah found between Pesach and Atzeres is our obligation to raise ourselves from the level of se’orim, which comprises the Korban Omer, to the more refined chitim of the Shtei Halechem of Shavuos.
Chazal (Yoma 9b) teach that the second Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed because of sinas chinom. Simply explained, the people looked down upon each other out of baseless hatred. Perhaps we can say that until the period during which the talmidim of Rabi Akiva died because of a lack of respect for each other, there was hope that the Jews would be able to repent for the sins that caused the churban Bais Hamikdosh. However, when the terrible plague struck the Jewish people and the 24,000 talmidim died, it became obvious that the people were overcome with sinas chinom and were lacking in ahavas Yisroel and achdus.
They realized that there would be no quick solution to their golus under the Romans unless they would quickly repent for their sins. The fact that the mageifah took place during the days of Sefirah, when there is increased ohr and daily introspection and perfection, indicated that not only were the people not worthy of the Bais Hamikdosh, but they were also unworthy of Torah.
The same components that are necessary for kabbolas haTorah are necessary for geulah, so this special period of Sefirah was chosen as a time to improve ourselves and prepare not only for Torah, but also for geulah. By mourning the loss of the talmidim, we are reminded of the punishment for not loving each other and dealing with each other respectfully. We see what happens when there is sinas chinom and a lack of respect for each other.
We are reminded that “ve’ohavta lerei’acha kamocha” is not only a nice undertaking and a good minhag, but a mitzvah mide’Oraisa incumbent upon us to observe in order to be connected to Hashem and worthy of Torah and geulah.
During the Sefirah period, we work each day to perfect another of the 48 kinyanim of Torah and engage in raising ourselves from the nefesh habehami levels of seorim, animal food, to the nefesh haruchni at the 49th level of kedusha. These attributes prepare us for kabbolas haTorah, when we stood united, k’ish echod beleiv echod, at Har Sinai. They also prepare us for the unity that geulah necessitates, when Hashem echod ushemo echod will be recognized across the world.
It is important for us to recognize that at the time of the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh, the Jewish people excelled in the study and observance of Torah, mitzvos and chesed (see Yoma, ibid.). It’s not as if they were locked in sin and indulging in depravity. The only area in which they were lacking was ahavas Yisroel. That alone was enough to cause the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh and bring on golus and all that it entails.
In our day, we note the explosion of Torah and frum communities. There is so much that we can point to with great pride. Yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs are more plentiful and larger than ever. We have every conceivable type of chesed organization. There is unprecedented dikduk b’mitzvos. Yet the fact that we remain in golus indicates that we are lacking in ahavas Yisroel and achdus. If sinas chinom wasn’t prevalent among us, if there wouldn’t be machlokes and division, golus would have ended.
During these days of Sefirah, it is incumbent upon us to end the hatred, spite, cynicism and second-guessing of each other, of people who look different or see things differently than us. It is time we adopt the message of Sefirah and the passing of Rabi Akiva’s talmidim so that we can return again to where and what we were and what we are meant to be.
The number of days in the Sefirah period is cited as connected to the 48 methods necessary to acquire Torah. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos teaches that in order to properly acquire Torah, we must excel in the 48 devorim through which Torah is acquired. Most of them involve matters that relate to the way we deal and interact with one another. One who has not perfected himself ethically and morally cannot properly excel in Torah. A person who is deficient in the way he deals with other people will also be lacking in Torah.
The Ramchal in Maamar Hachochmah discusses the idea that the Bnei Yisroel in Mitzrayim sank to the 49th level of depravity. After redeeming them from servitude, Hakadosh Boruch Hu provided for them the 49-day period between Pesach and Shavuos so that the freed slaves could raise themselves from the abyss of decadence and alter their behavior in a steady progression until they would be worthy of receiving the Torah on Shavuos.
This ability is evident every year during this time period, the Ramchal says. The Ohr Hachaim adds to this concept and writes (Vayikra 23:15) that the counting of the days of the Omer is akin to the count that an impure person performs to calculate the time remaining until he regains his purity. During this period, we must engage in introspection, much the same as the unclean person would do during their period of counting.
These days involve more than a ritual counting and mourning. They demand a spiritual ascendancy to cleanse ourselves from the moral and spiritual imperfections that afflict all of us. During this period, we are to study and apply the 48 kinyanim of Torah in order to be worthy of accepting the Torah on Shavuos.
The mourning we engage in is directly tied to the introspection that this period obligates.
We mourn the loss of Rabi Akiva’s 24,000 talmidim, we emulate their accomplishments, and we seek to fill the void created by their absence. Rav Elchonon Wasserman taught (Kovetz Maamarim Ve’igros) that a person who is pretentious and egotistical cannot be successful in a leadership position. An effective leader can communicate with people because he relates to them, feels their pain, and he does not consider himself on a higher level than the people he serves.
In order to reach people, you have to really care about them and want to influence them. You have to address them with respect. Nobody likes being talked down to. Most people respond to positive reinforcement and tune out negativity.
If you rid your soul of sinas chinom, then you will behave with mentchlichkeit and treat people properly. If you are practiced in ahavas Yisroel, people will respect you and listen to you. You will be able to help them improve their shemiras hamitzvos, Torah learning, understanding of life, and acceptance of what Hashem gives them.
Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, as rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Eitz Chaim in Yerushalayim, would test the students in the school’s younger grades. He once asked a young boy a question pertaining to the understanding of the Gemara. The boy gave a wrong answer.
Rav Isser Zalman said to him, “I’m sure this is what you meant to say,” and provided the correct answer. He sought to prevent the boy’s embarrassment, from messing up so egregiously in front of the rosh yeshiva.
The student, however, was adamant. “No, that is not what I meant,” and proceeded to repeat the mistaken answer. Patiently, the rosh yeshiva tried again, “Yes, you’re right, because this is what you wanted to say,” and rephrased the correct answer. The boy wouldn’t hear of it. “The rosh yeshiva doesn’t understand what I am saying,” he complained. He again offered the incorrect answer.
As some of the boys began giggling to themselves, Rav Isser Zalman rose from his seat and excused himself. “I have to tend to something for a couple minutes and will quickly return,” he said.
Suspecting that something was afoot, the rebbi opened the door a crack and peered down the hall. There in front of him was the senior gadol hador with his eyes closed, talking to himself. He was repeating, “The obligation to respect everyone includes children,” over and over again.
After a couple moments Rav Isser Zalman returned to the classroom. He sat down, with a huge smile on his face and began to painstakingly explain the Gemara, until even that one boy understood it perfectly and was able to provide the correct answer to the question that was posed to him.
The greatest teacher is not the one who knows the most, and the greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one who motivates people to accomplish the greatest things. The greatest teacher is the one who understands his students and is able to reach them. The greatest teacher is the one who loves his students.
A good teacher gives a child the feeling that he has confidence in him and recognizes his potential for achieving greatness. The quality rebbi or morah lets the student know that they share their dreams, hopes and goals for the future, and will do everything they can to help the child attain them.
You can convince people to perform positive acts by appealing to their hopes or by playing to their fears. The one who excels makes sure to speak to people’s confidence and not to their doubts, with facts and not with fantasy. People respond much better and are more likely to rise to the challenge when they are treated with dignity.
For leaders and teachers, as well as parents and friends, communication is a lot more than words. What matters is not necessarily what we say, but how we say it. We can inspire and motivate when we communicate with love and care. By taking seriously the commandment of “ve’ohavta lerei’acha kamocha,” our children, students, friends and acquaintances will understand that they are admired and loved by people who have confidence in their abilities.
Others might be superior to us in intelligence, experience and diplomatic skills, but if we pay attention and exercise care when speaking to people, we can accomplish so much more. We must have passion in what we do. And we have to let it show. We can all help other people and remind them of their inherent greatness. We have to be optimistic about life and about our own abilities, and we have to convey that to others.
Everyone has the ability to affect the world. If we would maximize our G-d-given abilities to study Torah as well as we can; if we would utilize the strength that Hashem gave us to build instead of destroy, to be optimistic instead of pessimistic; if we would use the brachos that Hashem blessed us with to benefit others, we could change the world. We really can do it.
Sefirah is a time for us to dedicate ourselves to perfecting those abilities so that we can grow in the lilmod as well as the lelameid of Torah.
On Lag Ba’omer, hundreds of thousands travel to the kever of Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai in Meron to daven. It is the largest annual gathering of Jews. Arriving at the site is usually accompanied by great difficulty. Yet, Jews of all types happily make the pilgrimage to the kever of Rabi Shimon to show that they appreciate his message. With achdus, brotherhood and love, people gather around the kever and daven. They sing songs of praise and dance with all their strength.
They show that they have taken to heart the obligations of Sefirah and aveilus, and are preparing themselves for Torah and geulah, k’ish echod b’lev echod. They stand together firing up their neshamos as they reach for light and holiness.
Many of those who don’t make the trek, build a neighborhood fire, which they dance around as they sing songs dedicated to Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai and Rabi Akiva. The festivities inject a spiritual energy into the day.
Lag Ba’omer brings a welcome interruption to the Sefirah mourning. We take haircuts, shave, trim our beards, and allow music to cheer our souls once again.
Why is it that the customs of mourning in commemoration of the passing of the talmidim of Rabi Akiva have become the focal point of the Sefirah period? Why is it that Lag Ba’omer has become so widely celebrated, though it is not a Yom Tov?
Rabi Akiva was the greatest of his generation. It is said that he was the shoresh of Torah Shebaal Peh. The line of transmission of the Torah from Har Sinai to future generations ran through him and his students. When his students died, the Jewish world mourned. They worried about how the mesorah that ran through Rabi Akiva would continue. They worried about who would teach Torah to future generations. A grieving people on the run from Roman persecution, they cried and wondered if they could ever be consoled for the loss of so many great men crucial to the spiritual survival of the nation.
There must have been an overwhelming urge to say, “It’s all over.” The less faithful and more pessimistic probably weren’t too far from giving up. Rabi Akiva recharged the people and helped them recover from the devastating loss and proceeded to transmit the Torah to a new group of five students.
On this day, which marked a cessation of the deaths of Rabi Akiva’s talmidim, we commemorate the renewal. We celebrate the determination. We foresee the future bright with hopefulness and optimism. On this day, the talmidim stopped dying and Rabi Akiva’s talmid, Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai, revealed the secrets of Toras Hasod, which infused all future generations with added dimensions of kedusha and understanding.
As the centuries pass, and as the Romans of every period seek our destruction and annihilation, we look to Rabi Akiva and Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai for inspiration. We note how they faced down the enemy and persevered, ensuring that our nation and Torah are alive and flourishing to this day. In the wake of a tragedy that would have felled lesser people, Rabi Akiva strengthened himself and set about ensuring that the chain would remain unbroken.
As the golus continues, we must not weaken in our devotion to Torah. Noting how many giants our people have lost, we hear voices stating that we can never recoup the losses. We are doomed to mediocrity, they proclaim.
Lag Ba’omer rejects that hopelessness. It declares that we are never to give up hope or allow the chain of greatness to break. The fires of Lag Ba’omer burn vibrantly, announcing that the future will be bright, the mesorah will continue, and our people will be great.
The longer our exile is prolonged, the more we turn to days like Lag Ba’omer for inspiration and encouragement, and the more popular their observance becomes.
But it is not enough to just light a fire. It is not enough to sing and dance. We have to be prepared to work as hard as Rabi Akiva did. We have to be prepared for the deprivation suffered by Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son, Rabi Elazar. We have to be ameilim baTorah if we want to merit the blessings of rebirth and redemption. We have to perfect ourselves and achieve the 48 devorim that Torah accrual requires. We have to really love and care about each other. We have to stop being spiteful and hateful. We have to treat everyone the way we want to be treated.
We each have the ability to light up the world with Torah and maasim tovim, with intelligence and splendor. Let us pray that the fires spark within our souls a flame of holiness, and dedication to proper middos, as well as the mesorah and Torah. That way, we will merit the realization of the prophecies discussed in the works of Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai with the arrival of Moshiach tzidkeinu, bimeheirah beyomeinu. Amein.