This is what it means when it says that Bnei Yisrael did not keep shemittah – they failed to utilize the shemittah year to truly immerse themselves in spiritual growth and Torah study. They wasted too much time and energy during the sabbatical year on trivial pursuits.
Rabbi Eli Wolf points out that given this theme, it is not coincidental that Parshas Bechukosai always falls out around Lag B’Omer, because the strengthening of Torah is what Lag B’Omer is all about.
Why is Lag B’Omer a day to celebrate? The Shulchan Aruch (493:2) states that 24,000 students of Rabi Akiva died during the first 32 days of the Omer period. Yevamos 62b says that they died from a Divinely sent plague because they did not respect each other. As they were tremendous talmidei chachamim the lack of respect must have been very subtle; had we witnessed their lives, we would most likely not have noticed it. However, on their spiritual level, much was expected of them.
On the 33rd day, Lag B’Omer, the students stopped dying. Thus, the Rema writes that we should rejoice to some extent that day. We are allowed to take haircuts and we do not say Tachanun.
The Pri Chadash asks: If all that happened on Lag B’Omer was but a halt in the dying, why rejoice? The 24,000 deaths devastated Klal Yisrael, so the cessation of the deaths was a time for recovery, but celebration? He answers that the main reason for celebration is not that the students stopped dying; it is the fact that there were still a few students left for Rabi Akiva to teach and mold into the leaders of the next generation. Yevamos 62b relates that Rabi Akiva salvaged five students R’ Meir, R’ Yehudah, R’ Yosi, R’ Shimon, and R’ Elazar ben Shamua, and they “upheld the study of Torah at that time.” We rejoice on Lag B’Omer in Rabi Akiva’s ability to continue to teach Torah and rise above the tremendous tragedy of losing 24,000 students.
We also commemorate the death of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai. He was one of Rabi Akiva’s students and his yahrtzeit is on Lag B’Omer is celebrated by the lighting of bonfires. Many take the opportunity to visit his kever in Meron and sing and dance. The Nesivos Shalom explains that the Zohar describes the day of Rabi Shimon’s death as a day full of light when many secrets of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, were revealed. Rabi Shimon taught these insights to his students before his petira. This is why we light bonfires, as they are reminiscent of that day when many lights of Kabbalah were brought into the world. Lag B’Omer can be described as a “Matan Torah of Toras HaNistar,” a day when we received the hidden Torah, the Torah of mysticism, Kabbalah.
And these are some of the happenings in this week’s haftarah.