1. Counting the Omer - "Preparation"
2. Shattered Dreams
3. No Time for Contention 4. Certain Redemption 5. Rabbi Akiva and the "Inside-Out" Redemption
6. Gladdened by His Torah; Saddened by His Death
7. Restoring the Outside by the Light of the Inside 8. The Darkness Before the Light
Counting the Omer - "Preparation"
There is a custom to be especially joyful and to light bonfires on Lag BaOmer. What is the reason for these bonfires?
Let us begin by trying to understand the nature of the days between Passover and Shavuot - days of the "counting of the Omer." The commandment of the counting of the Omer tells us something of the unique value of these days. The act of counting puts us into a spirit of anticipation for that which is to come. According to Sforno, this is characteristic of the agricultural season: it is a period of transition from the winter cold to the harvest; it is a time of harvest and fruit-picking. During this season, just before the harvest, the crops face many potential dangers. Changes in the weather are liable to wreak havoc upon the produce.
Sefer HaChinukh sees in the counting of the Omer an indication of the preparations for the receiving of the Torah. From the Passover Festival we know that at the end of fifty days some great event is going to take place. The days of counting are days of great anticipation accompanied by the daily act of counting. It is a period which rests between the act of God’s choosing us as His nation and the creation of a practical framework and spiritual content for this covenant, as we indeed received at Sinai. Shattered Dreams
Over the generations, this period of counting has characterized partially by semi-mourning and partially by joy and light. With the passing of generations, these days of heightened dreams and expectations have brought both great achievements and bitter disappointments. The bonfire carries us back to a very special period experienced by the Jewish people after the destruction of the Second Temple - a period in which both destruction and construction were at play. Bar Kochba revolts against the Romans and attempts to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the Holy Temple. Rabbi Akiva, who directs all of his Torah and leadership capacities toward strengthening every ounce of redemptive and regenerative vision for Israel and its Land, chooses to support Bar Kochba and his movement. The movement, however, fails. Rambam explains that Bar Kochba died as punishment for his sins but he does not reveal what his sins were. No Time for Contention
There are those who are of the opinion that the failure of Bar Kochba’s rebellion was due to the plague which struck the Rabbi Akiva’s students who did not treat each other respectfully. It may be that the importance of practicing mutual respect was so obvious to Rabbi Akiva that he saw no need to lay special emphasis upon it in his teachings. The desire to reach great heights in Rabbi Akiva’s day led to a decline in basic common courtesy. Here, one can grasp the importance of unity in times of war and struggle. The students of Rabbi Akiva did not treat each other with mutual respect in wartime. It may well be that this revolved around questions related to the manner in which the struggle with the Romans ought to be waged. Wartime is no time for inner contention and doubts. War should be a catalyst for unity and agreement, bringing the whole nation together as one. Certain Redemption
In a letter to the Bnei Akiva youth organizing, Rabbi A.I. Kook wrote: "The failure of Bar Kochba’s vision and the collapse of his rebellion are themselves the reason for our conviction that the true words of Torah which emanated from the sacred mouth of Rabbi Akiva will eventually be fulfilled. This day is fast approaching; those hardships will not repeat themselves. It is not in vain that Israel has waged a war for existence until the very last generation."
In Rabbi Akiva’s generation, the conditions did not yet permit the completion of the fulfillment of the redemptive process; however, according to Rabbi Kook, after two thousand long years of exile, after such a delayed redemption, after numerous generations of lofty self-sacrifice - the redemption must come about. Doubts regarding the redemption usually result from a lack of understanding regarding the nature of the redemptive process. Whoever analyzes the words of the Prophets and the sages will discover an incredible likeness between that which is taking place before our very eyes and that which was written thousands of years ago. This fact alone strengthens faith in all of the words of the prophets and sages. Rabbi Akiva and the "Inside-Out" Redemption
Though he saw his students massacred in battle, Rabbi Akiva did not despair. Rabbi Akiva, who failed to bring about the redemption in a speedy manner, lays the foundation for the future - for a long and gradual redemption. When inner ripeness is lacking, all practical efforts to effect redemption are bound to result in a great national fall. Therefore, the practical physical aspect of redemption must walk hand in hand with the inward, spiritual side of the redemption, a side which stems from a source of light and Torah.
To this end, Rabbi Akiva chose four students, each of which possessed exceptional knowledge of the profound, inner side of the Torah. They were to be the ones to effect this great rectification. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was his leading student. Rabbi Shimon’s concerned himself primarily with the hidden, inner aspects of the Torah. The famous story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s flight to the cave is an expression of his rejection of all physical, worldly rectification "outside of the cave," and a complete dedication to inward rectification.
Only after having completed absorbing all of the inner, hidden lights of the Torah does Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai exit the cave and begin to reveal a little bit of the concealed light of the Torah. Lag BaOmer is an expression of the day of departure from the cave. According to other opinions, it is the day on which Bar Yochai died. From this day onward permission was granted to reveal the Torah wisdom of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Gladdened by His Torah; Saddened by His Death
The ruin experienced by Rabbi Akiva because of Bar Kochba’s failed rebellion, was to be the very element that gave birth to the inner lights which began to be revealed by his special student. The Midrash, in one succinct sentence, sums up the entire chapter of Rabbi Akiva’s incredible life:
"Regarding the verse, ‘This is the book of the generations of man,’ Reish Lakish said, ‘This teaches us that God showed Adam each generation and its leading Rabbis. When He arrived at the generation of Rabbi Akiva, He rejoiced in his Torah and was saddened by his death.’"
The capacity and strength to rejoice in his Torah can only come about through fully expressing sorrow over his loss. It was his death that caused the revelation of the secrets of the Torah.
This is characteristic of the entire exile: the Jewish people abandoned outer national endeavors in order to become, over the course of time, a completely inward nation - inward, recoiling and retreating to the purity and goodness of the heart.
During the counting of the Omer, days of anticipation for complete redemption, we are reminded of all of the disappointments, all of the deaths and decrees which plagued us in our exile. However, these very disappointments are that which will eventually give rise to a grand and joyful Torah. Restoring the Outside by the Light of the Inside
According to the Book of Zohar, after two thousand years of exile the Jewish people will have become purified, and "Tav Milgav," which means "inwardly good." At that point we will once again, as in years gone by, be called upon to take up the national task and to perfect not only the inward aspect of the People of Israel, but also the outward. The task which lies before us today is to restore all of the physical facets, so that they be functional. And just how is this to be carried out? Through our building according to the unique inner forces.
On a superficial level, the idea of extensive involvement in the physical world ought to make one wonder: Where is the inner meaning? Where is the unique inner Jewish content?
Yet we must have faith and know that such a content exists. Our sacred task is to uncover and reveal this inner content, this spiritual stuff. This is not meant to be brought about by force; rather, it should be allowed to grow out of profound freedom, together with a concern for the revealed, outer forces. The Darkness Before the Light
After more than fifty years during which the Jewish people have created praiseworthy national frameworks in many areas, it has come time for the inner imperative. This originates from among those who fear God and springs from a kind of reliable intuition. It has finally come time to reveal that the great enterprise which has taken form here in our time is in fact an expression of a profound inner meaning. If our national secret remains hidden, we will not possess the strength to even maintain that which presently exists. The situation cannot remain frozen as it is. All this is no doubt God’s lofty will which is continuously weaving the light of salvation, calling upon us to climb another rung higher upon the ladder of redemption.
The Maharal explains that this is the manner in which great things materialize. There is emptiness before the materialization, darkness before the light. The same is true regarding the redemption of Israel: there must first be an great absence. "Something which comes into being," explains the Maharal, "will not do so like an egg [hatching, wherein the chick comes out] fully formed" (Netzach Yisrael chpt. 26). So long as the situation is bearable, there is no push to uncover new things. It is the nature of man to be complacent. Only when a person finds himself face to face with difficulties which demand a solution is he forced to become creative.
It is our hope that the terrible Holocaust which precipitated the establishment of the modern State of Israel adequately fulfilled its task as the "darkness before the light." Unfortunately, even now we sometimes encounter the loss of life through terrorist attacks. This pushes us even more intensely toward rebirth. Out of the pain which results from the loss of precious and holy Jewish souls we are becoming ripe for the approaching reversal. We pray to the Almighty that we speedily merit revealing our true inner potential - not through suffering and hardship, but through Torah and faith, through the healthy flow of life forces and construction: the joy of Torah through the joy of life.