Why do we rejoice on Lag Ba’omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, the 18th day of the month of Iyar? According to tradition, this is the day of passing of Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai, the famous Talmudic sage, also known by the acronym, Rashbi. What is there to celebrate on the day of passing, particularly of a great sage? After all, on the day of passing of Moses, we do not make big celebrations, and some people even fast!
We feel sorrow at the passing of Moses because he did not merit to enter the land of Israel and finish his task. Thus, the Kabbalists say that the soul of Moses returns in every generation, in order to finish his task. But, Rebbe Shimon revealed the secrets of the Torah just before his passing and passed away amidst great joy. This is the meaning of the Hebrew word, ‘hilulah’ which refers to the day of passing of a tzaddik, and literally means ‘a joyous wedding.’ Inside the deep secrets of the Torah that Rebbe Shimon revealed, the light of the complete redemption and Mashiach is concealed. Thus, the joy knows no bounds.
The core of the Torah taught to us by Moses is the practical commandments. Moses himself desired to perform all the commandments, which is why we feel sorrow upon his death, because many of these commandments can only be performed in the land of Israel. Rebbe Shimon, however, primarily revealed the light of the Torah: the light that is above any limitations (transcendent light, in terms of Kabbalah). Rebbe Shimon spent thirteen years in the cave – almost bereft of practicle commandments: He did not have a sukkah or a lulav for the Sukkot holiday, or matzah for Pesach. All that he had was Torah study. This light—the light of his Torah—was manifest even more intensely after he passed away and his soul was free from the confines of his physical body then it was even during his lifetime.
Until We Don’t Know
Something about the joyousness of Lag Ba’omer is reminiscent of the joyousness of Purim. On the Hebrew calendar, Lag Ba’omer will always be on the same day of the week that we celebrated Purim. What is the inner connection betweeen the two dates?
On Purim, we drink wine, “until we do not know the difference between the evil Haman and the righteous Mordechai.” On Lag Ba’omer, however, there is no need to drink copious amounts of wine. It is enough to just drink a small l’chaim and in order to realize the sages’ statement that, “When wine goes in, secrets come out” [the Hebrew word for “wine” (יין) equals the Hebrew word for “secret” (סוד)]. On Purim, the wine goes into our mouths and on Lab Baomer the secret itself – the secrets of the Torah- emerge from our mouths. These secrets are so deep that they really are above and beyond regular knowledge (such as not knowing the difference between the evil Haman and the righteous Mordechai). They are derived from a wondrous, hidden place, as is written about Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai, “Bar Yochai, a wondrous light from the heights of Above.”
Interestingly, the day of passing of Moses, the seventh of Adar , also comes out on the same day of the week as Purim and Lag Ba’omer. Lag Ba’omer is the 71st day from the 7th of Adar, similar to the connection between Moses and the 70 Elders. This is a beautiful allusion to the fact that the hilulah of Rebbe Shimon brings completion to the passing of Moses. Initially, we felt sorrow upon his death, but now, we begin to understand that the passing of a tzaddik is the dawn of the revelation of the light of the redemption.
Noisy and Upsetting
In the Zohar it is told that when Rebbe Shimon was buried, a voice called out, “This is the man who makes noise on earth and angers kingdoms.” This refers to the death and downfall of the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnetzar.
What is the connection between Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai and the evil Nebuchadnetzar, who destroyed the First Temple in Jerusalem? As we say on Purim, “Cursed is Haman, blessed is Mordechai,” so we say on Lag Ba’omer “Cursed in Nebuchadnetzer, the head of all the destroyers.” “Blessed is Rebbe Shimon, the leader of all the Children of Israel” [In Hebrew, “Rebbe” (רבי) is an acronym for “the leader of the Children of Israel” (ראש בני ישראל)].
How do we rectify the destruction of the Temple? Rebbe Shimon makes noise on earth – he makes positive noise in the world, awakening us all – including the most simple Jews – to return to God and beg Him for the redemption. In this way, he “angers kingdoms” – transforming the kingdom-government to the kingdom of Torah and holiness – the kingdom of Mashiach.