This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
The latest article is posted here once a week. You can search the archive for past articles.
Parshat Emor (5770)
This week's Torah portion contains 64 commandments and one of them is the longest in The Book. It's called 'Counting the Omer' and it takes 49 days; namely counting aloud with a blessing, each of the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot.
The most significant of these 49 days is the 33rd when, on that date some 1800 years ago, a great Jew named Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai (a.k.a. RaShBi) passed away. It is a day of rejoicing and to this day hundreds of thousands of Jews visit his grave in the northern Israeli town of Meron (this coming Saturday night) to light a huge bonfire and rejoice in song and dance. In fact the entire land of Israel is dotted with tens of thousands of such fires and rejoicing in his honor.
The reason for all this is that Rashbi wrote the mystical book "The Zohar", which describes the soul of Judaism and in which G-d is quoted as saying, will bring Moshiach; world peace and universal prosperity.
At first glance all this is not so clear.
First, how can the Zohar be so important? After all, it's only a book! How can it bring such total benefit to all mankind?
Second, what type of commandment is counting days?
Third, what is the connection to the 33rd day of the Omer with the death of this great man?
Fourth, why do people rejoice on the day he DIED, and why bonfires?
And most important, what does this mean to us today?
To understand this here is a story I just read (Iton HaMvaser, K'hilot #62 pg. 12)
In May of 1948, shortly after Israel declared statehood, the Jordanian army surrounded Jerusalem with their best trained, best armed forces and sealed it hermetically for several weeks. Several futile attempts were made by the fledgling Israeli army to break the siege but they all failed tragically and after a while the Jews of Jerusalem were suffering from hunger and thirst.
Only a few hundred Jewish soldiers with light weapons were defending the city and everyone knew that at any moment the Jordanian high command would give the word, Jerusalem would fall into their hands and all its inhabitants would be massacred (as had happened in Kfar Etzion a few weeks earlier).
Nothing stood between the enemy and total victory.....almost.
Miraculously the few attempts the Arabs made failed. For instance just a few days before Lag B'Omer they sent an expeditionary force of two tanks followed by several tens of soldiers to wreak havoc in the city.
The small force of Jewish defenders with no anti-tank devices seemed helpless against this armored force rumbling unhindered through the streets until, suddenly, one of the Jewish soldiers bravely jumped from nowhere onto the first tank, lifted the hatch, which miraculously was unlocked, threw in a makeshift Molotov Cocktail and jumped off unharmed all under a hail of bullets. The tank crew made a hasty escape, the tank blew up blocking the road and the invaders retreated.
But everyone knew it wouldn't last long. Every day another Jew died from the incessant Arab mortar fire and the Jordanians had the most modern and well organized army and weaponry including artillery of all the 6 or 7 Arab nations attacking Israel - and they were motivated!
That Thursday (May 28th that year) would be Lag B'Omer when, almost 2,000 years ago, Rashbi revealed his deepest mystical secrets and declared it a day of rejoicing just before he passed away!
They had to make a fire and rejoice....but how!?
A fire at night (Jewish holidays begin at nightfall) would be suicide; it would draw enemy artillery and everyone would be killed! (Previously the Jordanians had not used extensive artillery on Jerusalem because they were certain it would soon be theirs. But a fire at night would be an invitation for target practice!)
Then someone had an idea! In Jerusalem it is the custom to light Shabbat candles 40 minutes before nightfall; there was no reason they couldn't do the same with the Lag B'omer fire! They would light it early while it was still light outside and then they could rejoice a little and do it quietly so as not to draw attention.
About thirty Chassidim showed up. They bought bottles of oil, several bags of old rags and even a few pieces of wood for the fire and made a 'parade', singing quietly, fearing every step, from the Synagogue of the Chassidim until the yard before the Shul of the Perushim.
There they quietly arranged their materials in a pile, lit the fire, held hands, formed a circle around the fire and resumed their stifled singing.
But then, something happened. Suddenly they weren't afraid….only happy! They sang louder, began clapping their hands, smiling, dancing and jumping with the joy of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
Before they knew it they were singing at the top of their lungs, drenched with sweat and dancing with their eyes closed. A half hour had passed! It was getting dark!
Suddenly the enemy cannons opened up and fire and explosions woke them from their ecstasy. Never had they experienced such a barrage of artillery! Destruction was everywhere. The Jews scattered in all directions, obviously this was the attack on Jerusalem they had expected and dreaded. Each man ran to his home to his family.
Buildings were falling; bombs were bursting with horrific destructive force. Close to a hundred Jews, rushed to the safest place they knew - the Synagogue! There G-d would save them!
The one writing this true account, Rabbi Avraham Yonaton Gotlieb, recalls how one Rabbi, Zev Isenbach, stood at the podium and read Psalm 91, 91 times begging G-d for mercy and protection. And it worked!
Suddenly another Jew, Rav Yosel Eichler, appeared in the Shul with a large bag on his shoulder and began distributing its contents, small loaves of bread dipped in oil, saying, "Don't forget that today is a holiday! This is for the joyous meal in honor of Rebbi Shimon!!"
After over an hour the bombardment stopped. Not one person had been injured and it was totally silent! The dreaded Jordanian attack never came.
Suddenly one of the Jewish soldiers who happened to be religious, ran in, waving his arms, with a wild, look screaming, "What did you do?! What did you do?! Are you crazy?! Are you all insane?! Did you light that fire and sing!? Was it you!?
He calmed down and continued. "You don't know what happened! The Jordanians retreated!! They must have been much closer than we supposed but when they heard your singing and saw the fire they became afraid! They figured the only thing that would make you so happy was that reinforcements with new weapons must have arrived and were about to attack them! So they ran away! One of the Arabs told us!
"That's why they fired all their cannons! Their commander ordered them to cover the retreat as they were pulling back to keep us away!! It was a miracle! A miracle from Rabbi Shimon!! If it wasn't for your singing they would have killed all of us for sure!"
On Friday, the day after Lag B'omer, both chief Rabbis of Jerusalem; Rabbi Minzberg and Rabbi Chazan, raised white flags and entered the Jordanian camp with an offer to surrender Jerusalem. But only on certain conditions; that all the populace would be allowed to leave unharmed etc.
Amazingly the Jordanians agreed to all the terms! It seems they were still under the effect of the Lag b'Omer scare and were happy they had not been attacked by the imaginary Jewish 'forces',
This answers our questions. There is a well known saying that even a little light can dispel much darkness.
This is because darkness is really not a true entity; it is only the absence of light.
The light in this case is the awareness that G-d is creating each of us constantly, and He does so for a reason. When a human is aware of this; namely how close and good G-d is, then there is meaning, purpose and even joy in every moment of life.
And this 'light' dispels all darkness; fear, confusion, loneliness and despair caused by false egotism.
This is the 'light' that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai brought us with his teachings in the 'Zohar'. And, as we saw in our story, it worked to dispel the Jordanian forces of darkness and destruction.
That is the commandment of 'Counting the Omer'. In Hebrew the word for 'counting' (Spor) also means 'to shine' (Sapire) and according to the Zohar 'counting the 49 days' means to shine meaning and blessing into each of the 49 aspects of human nature. (see your local Chabad Rabbi for explanation).
That is the connection between Rabbi Shimon and the 33rd day. According to Kabbalah this 33rd day(hod sh'b'hod) represents the ultimately lowest inner aspect of human nature (surrender and gratitude) which Rashbi aimed to illuminate. (see your local Chabad Rabbi for explanation)
This is why fires are lit on this day; to illuminate, to inspire and enflame our souls with joy and meaning (as in our story) and to automatically dispel all darkness.
And the lesson from all this to us today is, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe said many times, ours is the generation of Moshiach; the generation that will totally dispel all darkness through the light and meaning found in the Zohar as explained in the teachings of Chabad Chassidut (see your local Chabad House for details).
Soon the entire world; each and every human, will rejoice with true meaning in life.
It all depends on us to be good examples and do even one more good deed, say one more word or even think one more good thought to bring….
Copyright © 1999-2018 Rabbi Tuvia Bolton. All rights reserved. No unauthorized reproduction or copying of this material shall occur without prior permission.