Friday, May 23, 2008

lag ba'omer - freedom and individuality

The sefira period is a time for mourning the death of R’ Akiva’s students who were punished because they failed to respect each other properly. How could such giants fail in such a basic matter of middos? The Shem m’Shmuel offers an analogy: one’s hands do not show kavod to one’s feet for perambulation, and one’s feet do not show kavod to one’s hand for grasping. Kavod stems from the recognition of “otherness”. R’ Akiva’s students were so imbued with the idea of klal yisrael being one united entity that this notion of “otherness” was foreign to them. The mussar haskel is that unity should never cause us to lose sight of individual worth and distinctiveness. As opposed to counting shemita years, which is an obligation incumbent upon klal yisrael as a collective entity and carried out by beis din, “u’sefartem lachem” teaches that the count of sefira must be done by each individual.

The Shem m'Shmuel further explains that the date of La”g baOmer (or Lag laOmer, depending on your nusach) falls out three days after the man started falling (see Kiddushin 38). A recurrence of three times is normally sufficient to establish a chazakah. Until the man began, the Jewish people were sustained by the foods they brought out of Mitzrayim, food tainted with the taste of slavery. La”g baOmer is a celebration of the true start of freedom and break with the past.

I would combine these two ideas of the Shem m’Shmuel. The oppressor does not recognize the individual, but lashes out at the group, whether it is “the Jews”, “the blacks”, or some other collective. This is the mentality of Mitzrayim enslavement. Sefer Shmos opens with the names of individuals - Reuvain, Shimon…, but the new Pharoah refers only to “Am Bnei Yisrael”, forgetting Yosef, forgetting the relationship with the individual. Slavery depends on this depersonalization that causes the loss of respect for the worth of the individual. R’ Yonasan Sacks in Passaic once explained in a 9 Av shiur that the reason the sugyos in Gittin highlight vignettes that relate to the plight of individuals during the churban is because it is easy to lose sight of the scope and effect of tragedy when it is expressed only as the plight of masses. Until Lag baOmer we lived on the food of Mitzrayim, we retained some element of looking at the group instead of focusing on the individual. Even R’ Akiva’s students may have absorbed this mindset, albeit motivated by the positive goal of wanting to fully appreciate the bond of klal yisrael as a people. Lag ba’Omer is the time to break the mindset of Mitzrayim and to recognize the value of individuality.


  1. Anonymous7:00 PM

    Parshas Bechukosai
    אִם-בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ וְאֶת-מִצְו‍ֹתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם
    One time someone came to the Chofetz Chaim and complained "Rebbi, I learn and struggle and yet I don’t understand my learning". The Chofetz Chaim answered him look in Parshas Bechukosai in the first Posuk. There it says אִם-בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ and Rashi says on the Posuk שתהיו עמלים בתורה meaning to struggle in the torah so apparently you are reaching your goal!!!
    2) The Mincha Belulah addresses the reason for the word אִם in our posuk. He says the word אִם is an acronym for the great leaders of Klal Yisrael in Golus. It is an acronym for Aharon and Moshe, Mordechai and Esther, and when Moshiach comes speedily in our day it will be Moshiach and Eliyahu Hanavi.
    3) What is the significance of תֵּלֵכוּ in our Posuk? The Tiferes Yonason answers in the Torah people are called הולכים and Malachim are called עומדים. This is because Malachim don’t work on themselves so they are standing still and not moving henceעומדים.Then there are people who are always moving growing as people from one level to the next hence הולכים .Therefore the posuk says תֵּלֵכוּ because if you keep moving spiritually then in the next posukim it says וְנָתַתִּי גִשְׁמֵיכֶם בְּעִתָּם you will reap the rewards.
    4) Rashi says שתהיו עמלים בתורה the Gemara in Brachos says אני עמל ומקבל שכר והם עמלים ואינם מקבלים שכר .This means we work and get שכר they work and don’t get שכר. The question is how can you compare our work is Torah and their work is a job. The answer is we do the same work but just our approaches are different. The Rambam say if you do your work and have in mind you do it for hashem it is as if you did Avodas hashem all day. Therefore we go to work to make work an Avodas Hashem. They go and think how will to get the most money for the least work. Now the עמל is the same we just get the שכר.
    וְנָתַתִּי גִשְׁמֵיכֶם בְּעִתָּם וְנָתְנָה הָאָרֶץ יְבוּלָהּ וְעֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה יִתֵּן פִּרְיו
    Why does the Posuk use the word גִשְׁמֵיכֶם your rain?
    Rav Moshe Feinstein answers the question based on a famous Medrash. The Medrash says that Alexander went to meet another king in Africa. During the visit a court case came in front of the king. The case was one man bought a field from the other. They found gold on the field. He claimed he only bought the field and taking the gold would be theft. The second party claimed he sold the field and everything on it and taking it now would be theft and he would have no part of it. They now stood in front of the king for judgment. He asked one do you have a son, he answered yes. He then asked the second party do you have a daughter he answered yes. The king then issued his judgment your daughter will marry your son and they will share in your joint wealth. When Alexander heard this he remarked if it was me I would judge very differently. The African king asked him how would you judge? He said I would chop both their heads off and take the money myself. The King replied do you have rain in your kingdom; Alexander replied yes. The king then asked do you have small animals he said yes. The king told him you should know the reason you receive rain is because of your small animals. Now says Reb Moshe we understand our posuk. The king established it is possible to receive rain not in our own merit but on the merit of small animals so our posuk is telling if you learn torah you will get the rain in your own merit.
    2) What is the significance of the word בְּעִתָּם? The Bnei Yissachar answers it is judged on Rosh Hashanah how much rain that person receives that year. The word בְּעִתָּם tells you if you do Aveirous then hashem could send all the rain at once and there would be no Bracha in fact it would be ruinous so the posuk says בְּעִתָּם it will be in a timely matter that the rain will be for Bracha.
    3) The last Posuk in Behar ends off you should watch my Shabbos. The Posukim in Bechukosai promise וְנָתַתִּי גִשְׁמֵיכֶם בְּעִתָּם what is the connection? The answer lies in two Gemara's .The Gemara in Shabbos said whoever keeps Shabbos all his Aveirous are forgiven. The Gemara in Taanis says when the rain does not fall all a persons Aveirous are forgiven. Now we understand the correlation of our posukim. If you want the rain to fall on time like the posuk in our Parsha then keep Shabbos and you will be forgiven so you don’t need Hashem to hold back the rain in order to receive your forgiveness. You therefore see the correlation between the last Parsha and ours. ֹ
    וְהִשִּׂיג לָכֶם דַּיִשׁ אֶת-בָּצִיר וּבָצִיר יַשִּׂיג אֶת-זָרַע וַאֲכַלְתֶּם לַחְמְכֶם לָשֹׂבַע
    Rashi translates this Posuk to mean you will eat a little and be full. The Sefer Taam Vadaas asks why eat a little and be full why not get a lot? The answer today is tremendously clear. The high rates of obesity and Diabetes and other diseases that come with living in a rich society clear show us Rashi had the right idea. The Torah had the great foresight to say it is not a lot of food but being satisfied with a little that is the key.

    וַאֲבַדְתֶּם בַּגּוֹיִם וְאָכְלָה אֶתְכֶם אֶרֶץ אֹיְבֵיכֶם
    When arriving in Israel the Yemenite children where taken on a tour of Ponevitch. Much to the dismay of the adults the children started to make fun of the new immigrant children and their Peyos, which they call Simanim. Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein came over to remedy the situation .He told them it said in this week's Parsha it says וַאֲבַדְתֶּם בַּגּוֹיִם you will be lost among the nations. The Medrash on the Posuk says that the Jews are like a lost object. Therefore said Rav Zilberstein you call them Simanim, because a lost object with Simanim in the context of lost objects meaning distinct demarcation are not considered lost as they can always be identified. The children where consoled, and they learnt a Jew with Peyos can not be lost.
    לֹא יְבַקֵּר בֵּין-טוֹב לָרַע וְלֹא יְמִירֶנּוּ וְאִם-הָמֵר יְמִירֶנּוּ וְהָיָה-הוּא וּתְמוּרָתוֹ יִהְיֶה-קֹּדֶשׁ לֹא יִגָּאֵל.
    Reb Moshe Feinstein takes an interesting lesson from this Posuk. At the literal level Rashi explains it to mean that you are not allowed to set it up that the best animal be the tenth animal that comes out of the Pen to make it Masser. Then it says וְלֹא יְמִירֶנּוּ "You should not substitute it". It would seem pretty simple to say if I am not allowed to set up which should come out tenth of course I cant replace it? Rav Moshe says the lesson for us is we may not say בֵּין-טוֹב לָרַע on ourselves. You may not say I can not learn so therefore I will not, but my friend has a good head let him learn. This is the talking of the Yetzer Hara. Therefore the Torah specifies and says וְלֹא יְמִירֶנּוּ you should not replace yourself from learning.
    וְאִם-בְּחֻקֹּתַי תִּמְאָסוּ וְאִם אֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי תִּגְעַל נַפְשְׁכֶם לְבִלְתִּי עֲשׂוֹת אֶת-כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹתַי לְהַפְרְכֶם אֶת-בְּרִיתִי
    The Baal Hatanya in Likutie Torah said that the curses in these weeks Parsha are in actuality Brachos. The concept is found in the Gemara in Moed Katan. There the Gemara has a story. Reb Shimon Bar Yochai sent his son to get a Bracha from Reb Yonasan and Reb Yehuda. They told him things that seemed like the worst curses .He came to his father who explained the actual meaning. It was only then that he saw the greatness of the Bracha. The curses follow this prototype. The first example is וְהָלַכְתִּי אַף-אֲנִי עִמָּכֶם בְּקֶרִי hashem tells them and I will go with you in anger. A person in anger is rash and lashes out at the people around them. When the person realizes his mistake he is apologetic and will go out of their way to appease. The curse here is a Bracha Hashem will punish but after there will be an appeasement were we will receive extra Bracha. A second example is וְעֵץ הָאָרֶץ לֹא יִתֵּן פִּרְיוֹ the land wont give fruit .The Milo Haomer points out it wont give fruit but continue to sprout so it will be clear to you that the lack of fruit is a punishment .Then you will realize your shortcomings and do the teshuva that is required. A third and final illustration is the posuk וַאֲבַדְתֶּם בַּגּוֹיִם you will be lost among the gentiles, this is also Bracha .We all know what it is to lose an expensive object. It can be very upsetting and but later when it is found there is a sense of happiness. The same is true of our relationship with Hashem. When we do Teshuva and are no longer lost we cause Hashem great happiness. The overall perspective we should have on the curses is best explained with a moshul. When a child is punished in his mind his father has done the greatest injustice, but a reasonable adult realizes that the opposite is true. The adult knows the punishment is for the child's own good. In this example we are the child to which Hashem gave the curses. We where warned yet we did not listen. Then we complain of the injustice done to us. We must realize that we are the child and really these curses are a Blessing in disguise. A friend of mine Rabbi Pollack pointed out another way this is true. The Christians have a theory called Replacement theory. This means the Jews where the chosen people but Hashem was dissatisfied the Jews and chose Christianity instead. Their proof is study the suffering the Jews throughout time it must be the Jews are no longer in Hashem's good graces. These Posukim illustrate the opposite is true. It is these very actions that prove we where and still are the chosen nation.

  2. Anonymous8:18 AM

    Chaim - Nazir 65a. How do you understand Reb Akiva's very strong comments to Rebbi Yesheivov. It seems amazing that Rbbi Akiva who lost 24,000 talmidim shelo nohagu kavod should himslef use such strong language?

  3. sorry - which gemara on 65a do you mean?

    BTW, one of my favorite line sin shas is "ain lo moach b'kadkado" (in the first perek of yevamos). The Tanaim and Amoraim I guess were not so thin skinned.

  4. Anonymous9:54 AM

    Chaim - about half way down the amud on 65a (Nazir) the Gemora relates an incident re Rabbi Yesheivov. Rabbi Akiva responds "kol sheyigato lorik yigato...". Is it not strange that Rabbi Akiva of all tanaim should use such language. There are plenty of examples in the gemora of sharp exchanges but would we not expect Rabbi Akiva to show greater respect to his contemporaries?