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The Joy of Kavod (Lag Ba'Omer)

Oct 21, 2009 by Rabbi Pesach Siegel

The period between Pesach and Shavuos, formerly a joyous time, has been transformed to one of mourning. We mourn the twenty four thousand of Rabi Akiva’s students who perished in a plague. The fact that Chazal instituted that we still mourn them after all these years have passed is evidence that the loss is still contemporary. 


They perished for they failed to accord one another with the proper respect.


On Lag Ba’Omer we are enjoined to experience a slight increase of simcha. Hair may be shorn, beards shaven, and tachanun is not recited. From Lag Ba’Omer until the end of the sefira wedding celebrations may be held (opinion of the Rema).


What is the cause of this simcha? According to a tradition handed down to us from the Ge’onim, Rabi Akiva’s talmidim ceased dying on the 33rd day of the Omer. Until that day, the talmidim fell in the plague at a rate of 750 per day!! It is certainly a day of rejoicing when the plague abated.


There is a slight problem with this. Rabi Akiva had 24,000 talmidim. They all died. The reason why the plague ended? There was no one left for it to kill. No survivors. It is clear that the plague was ordained from heaven to bring death among the students of Rabi Akiva. Once that was accomplished there was no further need for the plague.


Why is simcha the appropriate emotion? Perhaps relief, but joy?


Let’s delve into a few other points and then return to our original question.


They died due to the lack of respect between them. There are many instances in Chazal where, tragically, individuals died due the lack of respect accorded Torah scholars. The great Resh Lakish died because of a misunderstood statement made to Rav Yochanon. Rav Yochanon never meant for him to die, and was inconsolable, but consequences that result from the affront of kavod haTorah are a reality. A Talmid Chochom is a fire, and great care must be taken with his honor. An insult to a Talmid Chochom is an assault against the Torah he embodies within himself.         


If such a flaw existed among the talmidim, it must have been microscopic. Surely measures were taken to correct any such flaws, and truly repent for any shortcomings. The cheshbon hanefesh which took place during those thirty two days must have been intensive and all inclusive. And yet it seems that the true source of the plague remained undetected. At least until the end. What insight did the Gemorah have that eluded Rabi Akiva?


A few words about kavod would seem to be in order.                                                                         

One of the names of the holy neshoma is kavod. As it is stated in Tehillim, “Lmaan yezamercha kavod velo yidom” –  so that my kavod will sing forth and not remain silent. Dovid Hamelech would awaken at midnight to the notes of a harp exclaiming, “oorah kevodi” – awaken, my kavod.


True honor comes to one who has a close bond with the King, HaKodesh Baruch Hu. Hashem breathes life directly into a Ben Yisroel without any intermediaries. This is true of no other creature or creation. Our very life source is kavod. Rav Yisroel Salanter was once noted as saying that if it would be possible to extract every iota of kavod from a Ben Adam, his death would result. Man cannot live without kavod.


This point is also borne out by the numerical value of the word kavod, which is thirty two, equal to the word “lev” – heart. The heart is the organ that pumps life throughout the body. It infuses the body with life.


Every living creature has a life force on an individual level. On a grander scale, the entire creation has one communal soul. Without it, all would return to a state of tohu vavohu – nothingness and formlessness. This soul receives its life giving properties through the lomdei Torah – Torah scholars.


Rabi Akiva was the ultimate of lomdei and melamdei Torah of his generation. The mesorah in mishnayos, braisos, toseftos, etc. comes directly to us through the students of Rabi Akiva. He was privy to depths of Torah that aroused the wonder of Moshe Rabeinu, the meanings found within the crowns that are above and beyond the letters in the Sefer Torah. These crowns were placed on the letters, undeciphered, until Rabi Akiva’s time. They were placed there just for him.


Rabi Akiva was more than a rebbe imbuing his students with Torah learning. It was from his beis medrash that life flowed into the world. His holy Torah was above and beyond this world, and it was a life granting force to all of creation.


This places a tremendous responsibility on a talmid of Rabi Akiva. The standards of kavod for each other as fellow talmidim of Rabi Akiva are beyond our ability to comprehend. The amount of kavod one must have for someone who is responsible for the life breath of creation?! Incomprehensible! One can be assured that no lack of respect was detectable on the surface. It was too deep, too hidden. But a flaw in the life force of the universe is a danger to all of creation. A world that is nurtured by those who have an inadequate amount of respect for one another, however miniscule, will ultimately result in catastrophe.


How did the Gemorah know the cause of the decimation with such certainty? Had there been some surviving students, personal reasons would have been seen to be the cause, some students were guilty and some were found innocent and survived. But this was not the case. The entire yeshiva was destroyed. Something was wrong with the yeshiva as a whole. The talmidim were Rabi Akiva’s conduit in bringing Torah to the world. The “klop” (blow) brought against them left them totally lifeless, without exception. 


This was not due to a personal lack of respect that they had for one another. This pointed to a lack of chiyus (life force) amongst them. Since they lacked chiyus, they can no longer be the conduit for chiyus to the world. Chiyus and kavod are synonymous. If they lacked chiyus, then, they lacked kavod. This was evident only in the aftermath of the great onesh (punishment), and by then, it was too late to take corrective action.


There was actually one survivor of the plague, Rabi Akiva himself. The Gemorah says the world was desolate (shamem). Hashem’s agent to bring sustenance to the world is alive. His Torah is intact. Those who formerly transmitted his light of Torah are no longer present. Had they detected and corrected their flaw, the world would be on another path than it is today. But this was not to be. They failed their nisayon (trial). One who under-appreciates the kavod of a Ben Yisroel suffers from a lack of awareness of where that kavod emanates from. It comes from the reality that Hashem chose Klal Yisroel to be the bearers of his kavod throughout creation. Those who have a shortcoming in this area cannot be the chosen ones to sustain the world and guide it towards its purpose.


The world could not continue as such, a new way had to be found.


R’ Meir, R’ Yehuda, R’ Yosi, R’ Shimon, and R’ Elazar Ben Shamua were the new way. R’ Akiva was ma’amid (educated) five talmidim who took the place of 24,000.


The simcha of Lag Ba’Omer was not the cessation of the plague. All of creation was in danger. On  Lag Ba’Omer the path was prepared for the ultimate tikun ha’olam (reconstruction of the world in accordance with Hashem’s will). It came at a horrendous price. As long as a single one of the 24,000 survived the way was blocked for the development of the five new talmidim. Only once the former bridge to the world was removed could “construction” on the new one begin.


Perhaps this is why we our simcha is to be increased only slightly on Lag Ba’Omer. Our happiness comes from the knowledge that all of creation will reach the point of geulah (redemption), but our joy is somewhat mitigated by the way it tragically came about.


May we be blessed with the insight to sense the true kavod of one another, Acheinu Beis Yisroel.

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