As a young boy, Lag B’omer was the most enjoyable day of the year. It was a quasi-holiday, which meant there were no restrictive rules, but it was still a day off from regularly scheduled classes. A school outing to a grassy park, or what we New Yorkers imagined was a grassy park, was the activity of the day. It was explained to us that by going outdoors we were emulating the events of yesteryear. According to tradition, the Romans forbade Torah study and thus the teachers would study with the children outdoors. When the soldiers would check on them, it would appear the children were playing.
Yet as in all legends, there is always a deeper significance than initially thought. The Talmud teaches that 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died of a plague in a thirty-three day period. The rabbis tell us that their deaths were unnatural. They were believed to be an act of divine punishment due to a lack of mutual respect. It was on Lag B’omer when the plagues ceased and hence that day became one for celebration. I have always been fascinated by the story and although I may find the story line difficult, it is nonetheless a worthwhile lesson to incorporate in our lives.
I have always found it odd that Rabbi Akiva’s main doctrine was ‘love thy neighbor as you love yourself’. How is it possible that the most noted of all rabbis was unable to inspire his students to follow that basic principle? My only explanation is that Rabbi Akiva came to this fundamental conclusion only after his students died in the plague. It was then that he realized that all is for naught if we fail to treat each other with dignity and respect. Obviously if the Almighty chose to punish discord with death, then His aim was to prioritize the notion of mutual respect above all other mitzvot.
I am forever mindful that the letter of the law often seems to take precedence over the essence of the law. During the past 30 days I did not shave (hence the beard) nor get a haircut. I did not go to concerts or movies; even weddings and public social activities were taboo. Yet the question I must ask myself is whether my attitudes towards others actually changed? Did I conclude the period with a greater appreciation for my fellow human being? Did I display an outward persona, and yet fail to grasp the essence of the commemoration?
An interesting Talmudic statement that never achieved the prominence of ‘love your fellow man’ is the opinion offered by Ben Azai, a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva. He states that that the golden rule is not ‘love thy fellow man’ but rather ‘all people are created in the image of God’. Perhaps he is saying that it may be too lofty an aspiration to insist that we love each other. Indeed, all religions have the commandment, but we all know that very few, if any, adhere to it. So may I suggest that we aim a bit lower and start by taking a few baby steps. Imagine if we looked at people and instead of seeing them, we saw the image of God. It would not matter if they were friends or foes because we would see beyond the physical and focus on the spiritual. Rabbi Soloveitchik explains the Hebrew word for face is Panim, and the Hebrew word for inside is p’nim. He explains this to mean that the face is merely a means to understand the inner manifestation of the human. Furthermore, God himself in Torah is referred to as Panim. Thus, perhaps when you look into someone’s panim (face), try to look deeper than the extremity. Look deeply and perhaps you can see the face of God in all humanity.
Can we close our eyes and imagine what the world would be like if humanity heeded the lesson of Lag B’omer?
Rabbi Jack Engel