By Yochanan Gordon
Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai was a mystical personality, and Lag B’omer is a mystical day. But what many often overlook is that the mystical and the fundamental are inextricably tied to each other. If we truly understood the mystical elements that are part of reality, we’d see how they run seamlessly into the most simple realm of reality. This idea is known as na’utz sofan b’techilasan, which says that the most mystical layers of reality known as sod is connected to the realm of pshat. If we perceive Lag B’omer as a day of mysticism, it behooves us to uncover the practical and fundamental lesson within it.
One well-known story about Rebbe Shimon is about when he and his son Elazar left the cave they had been hiding in for 12 years. They looked around and everywhere they rested their gaze immediately turned to rubble. A heavenly voice rang out: “Who allowed you to destroy G-d’s world. Return to your cave.” So Rebbe Shimon and his son Elazar returned to the cave for another 12 months. The second time they emerged with a much more positive outlook. Instead of at things as being detached from G-d, they instead were able to see the unified and wholesome core within every Jew and every creation.
Holiness is perhaps one of the most misunderstood virtues. If you’d ask most people for the definition of holiness, they would probably answer asceticism. In fact, Rashi famously interprets the words kedoshim tihiyu as instructing us to abstain from immoral relationships. The word Rashi uses to convey that is to be parush, to separate or distance oneself from prohibited relationships. In Jewish theology, that is only the beginning of a life of holiness. True holiness is achieved when we are able to live holy lives within society and allow our holiness to rub off on society without its impurity impacting us.
One of the final declarations that Rebbe Shimon made was when he said: “I am capable of absolving the entire world from being judged negatively.” It’s this declaration that we should focus on, on our quest to achieving true holiness in this world.
As many people do, I woke up early ag BaOmer morning to get a haircut. That last time I had it cut was two weeks before Pesach for a wedding, so the subsequent growth had accumulated more than the average person. Later today we are celebrating the wedding ceremony of another of my wife’s brothers, so while it is Chabad custom to wait on haircuts until Erev Shavuos, I believe there is precedent for my getting a haircut in preparation for this special event.
Shaving one’s beard is always looked down upon in Chabad society. The mysticism of a beard is important in Chassidic life, and I understand and respect that. At davening this morning, after my haircut, the rabbi noticed that I had shaved my beard and laughingly cited a biblical verse about the brothers inability to recognize Yosef. Yosef was sold into slavery without facial hair, and his brothers did not recognize him when they met him 22 years later as the viceroy in Egypt because he had grown a beard.
On a simple level, the brothers’ inability to recognize Yosef was due to the full beard, but on a deeper level, the brothers never truly recognized who Yosef was and were thus forced to sell him and alienate him from the family.
After the rabbi quoted the verse “V’heim lo hikiruhu,” it immediately occurred to me that those words convey the message of Lag B’omer and the true sanctity of Rebbe Shimon. The word V’heim means “and they.” In Jewish thought, there is a distinction between the singular and plural. We strive to realize the unity in creation. Any discord is indicative of an inborn dissonance that causes the one who perceives it to see it.
Conversely, if we reverse the letters of the word heim, we would yield mah, a significant word in Chassidic philosophy which characterizes the epitome of humility. The only way to truly come to perceive the unity within creation is to attain true humility. The inability of the shevatim to recognize their own brother was due to a sense of inherent dissonance that obstructed their ability to see the divine spark in their brother’s soul. We see this same pattern the first time Rashbi and his son Elazar emerged from the cave. They went back for 12 months and emerged completely different people.
While Lag B’omer is here, let us internalize this message and strive to realize the unity of G-d within the world and within its people and we should merit the protection that Rebbe Shimon promised us if we just follow in his ways. A Happy Lag B’omer!