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“Lag Sameach”

The Chasam Sofer (Derashos, vol. 2, pg. 279) says that the two letters which spell “Lag” are a lamed and a gimmel. Those two letters can be spelled out. A lamed is spelled lamed, mem, dalet, and a gimmel is spelled gimmel, mem, lamed. When you add up the numerical value of all of those letters, they equal 147. The number 147 is connected to Ya’akov Avinu because he passed away at the age of 147 (Parshas Vayechi, 47:28).

It is obvious that the Chasam Sofer wants to draw a connection between Lag B’Omer and Ya’akov Avinu. The question is, “What is that connection?” Another question could be, “What is the connection between the fact that Ya’akov lived 147 years and the fact that the letters lamed and gimmel are numerically 147 when they are spelled out?”

In Meseches Yevamos (chap. 6, “Haba Al Yevimto”, pg. 63b) it says that all of Rebbi Akiva’s 24,000 students died between Pesach and Shavuos. However, from the Avudraham ((Seder Y’mei Haomer u’Shevuos), Tur (Orach Chaim, 493), Ibn Hatarchi (Reb Avraham, 13th cent. France), Rav Zerachia Halevi (1115-1186 Spain), Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim, 493:1) and Rema (ibid) it seems that Rebbi Akiva’s 24,000 students died between Pesach and Lag B’Omer because we are allowed to have weddings and haircuts again starting from Lag B’Omer because that is when they stopped dying. So, which one is it? Did they stop dying by Lag B’Omer or by Shavuos?

Moreover, the Gemara says that they all died during this period of time. However, from the Rishonim it seems that some students remained alive because the Rishonim say that on Lag B’Omer the students stopped dying. The words, “They stopped dying,” implies that there may have been some students who were ill from whatever pandemic it was that broke out, but they recovered from their illness. If that is the case, who were those students who remained alive?

In his Pri Chadash (Orach Chaim, 493:2), Rabbi Yechezkel Di Silva (1659 Spain-1698 Jerusalem) says that we must side with the Gemara which says that they all died out. However, the joyous celebration of Lag B’Omer is about the fact that Rebbi Akiva collected new students on that day. When the Tur and others said that on Lag B’Omer they stopped dying, it just means to say that the new students never died like the old ones did.

This idea also addresses the other question about when they stopped dying. The answer is that the old students stopped dying by Shavuos, but on Lag B’Omer, Rebbi Akiva gathered new students, and those new students never had a death decree upon them.

Perhaps we could add that since the old students died up until Shavuos, Rebbi Akiva may have begun collecting his new students on the Lag B’Omer of the following year. However, it could be that when Rebbi Akiva saw that the few students he still had were terminally ill, he understood that soon he would be left without any students whatsoever. Therefore, maybe on that very year when they were still dying out, Rebbi Akiva went to assemble new students on Lag B’Omer.

In any case, it seems that there is something intrinsically special about the day of Lag B’Omer because Rebbi Akiva chose specifically that day to gather new students. If so, what is so unique about the essence of Lag B’Omer that Rebbi Akiva chose it to be the day for accepting new students under his guidance?

The Shvilei Pinchas says that it is not necessarily the pshat that Lag B’Omer is an innately special day which prompted Rebbi Akiva to choose that day, but rather Rebbi Akiva did not allow himself to fall into the pit of depression even though his life’s work of 24 years to create 24,000 students just vanished before his eyes in such a short period of time. Rebbi Akiva did not despair, nor did he become despondent.

Rather, Rebbi Akiva strengthened himself with emuna and bitachon in Hashem and started over again from scratch on Lag B’Omer. By doing so, Rebbi Akiva turned Lag B’Omer into an amazing day of emuna and bitachon. So, it is not that the day (Lag B’Omer) made the man (Rebbi Akiva to decide to choose new students), but rather the man (Rebbi Akiva) made the day (of Lag B’Omer special by having faith and trust in Hashem to keep moving forward).

This idea about Lag B’Omer being connected to emuna and bitachon will tie into a story about Ya’akov Avinu when he met Pharaoh for the first time. As soon as Yoseph brought Ya’akov to see Pharaoh, Pharaoh asked Ya’akov, “How many are the days of the years of your life?” (Parshas Vayigash, 47:8).

Ya’akov responded, “The days of the years of my travels have been 130 years, few and bad have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not reached the life spans of my forefathers in the days of their travels.” (Parshas Vayigash, 47:9).

The Da’as Zekeinim Miba’alei Hatosafos (ibid) cites a Midrash which says that when Ya’akov complained that his life was short and bad, Hashem said to Ya’akov, “I saved you from Eisav and Lavan, I returned Dina and Yoseph to you, and you complain about your life being short and bad!? I promise you that the number of words in verse 9 which records your complaining, will be subtracted from the years of your life. You will not live as long as your father Yitzchak who lived to be 180 years (Parshas Vayishlach, 35:28), but rather you will live only until 147 years because 33 years will be deducted from your life (which could have been 180 years) on account of there being 33 words in that verse.”

One difficulty with this Midrash is that verse 9 does not have 33 words in it. Verse 9 only has 25 words in it. As such, only 25 years should have been taken away from Ya’akov’s potential life-span of 180, and he should have lived until 155.

Reb Chaim Shmuelevitz ZT”L (Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva, 1902 Lithuania-1979 Jerusalem) answers this question by saying that we must start counting the words from the previous verse (18) where Pharaoh asks his question. Verse 18 has 8 words in it. When you add the 8 words from verse 18 to the 25 words from verse 19, you get 33 words altogether. The reason why we start counting from verse 18 is because Ya’akov got punished even for Pharaoh’s question because Ya’akov let the challenges of his life get to him so much that it took its toll by aging him. Ya’akov looked much older than he was because he did not accept the difficult experiences in his life graciously with love. Therefore, the ancient looking Ya’akov which prompted Pharaoh’s question was Ya’akov’s fault.

This answer from Reb Chaim Shmuelevitz is supported by the Da’as Zekeinim (ibid) themselves when they say that Ya’akov told Pharaoh, “Because of all the evil which happened to me, the aging process accelerated and took hold of me by making me look well beyond my years.”

Since Ya’akov lost 33 years of his life, he instituted the recitation of the Shema just before he died (Bereishis Rabba, Parshas Vayechi, 98:3; Elazar ben Achoi) as a way to be metaken his mistake of complaining. Let us see how the recitation of the Shema is indeed a correction for his complaining.

The Alshich Hakadosh (Rabbi Moshe Alshich, 1508 Turkey-1593 Tzfas; Toras Moshe, Parshas Vaeschanan) and the Tzla”ch (Tziyun L’nefesh Chaya, written by Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, 1713 Poland-1793 Prague, in loving memory of his mother whose name was Chaya; Meseches Pesachim, chap. 4, “Makom Shenahagu”, 56a) say that the meaning of the Shema pasuk is as follows. There are three Names of God mentioned in the Shema verse. They are: 1) Havaya, 2) Elokeinu, and 3) Havaya.

The name Havaya always represents Hashem’s side of compassion, whereas the Name Elokeinu always represents Hashem’s side of harsh judgement and discipline. Therefore, when a Jew recites the “Shema Yisrael”, he is talking to himself, because he is also a Yisrael. Then he goes on to mention the three Names of Hashem which send a message which is, whether I have experienced Havaya times (sweet times) or Elokeinu times (bitter times), I recognize that “Havaya Echad,” it is all sweet, filled with Divine compassion.

In other words, the message of the Shema verse is to live by the motto of “Gam Zu Litova” (this too is for the best; Meseches Ta’anischap. 3, “Seder Ta’aniyos Eilu”, pg. 21a, Nachum’s statement).

The Shvilei Pinchas says that this explains why Ya’akov instituted the recitation of Shema before he died. It is because Ya’akov looked at himself while he was on his death bed. Ya’akov realized that he was going to die at the relatively young age of 147. Ya’akov asked himself why he was not zocheh to live until 180 like his father. Ya’akov resolved his own question and blamed himself for complaining to Pharaoh about his short and bad life which was antithetical to the Gam Zu Litova approach to life. Ya’akov realized that 33 years had been deducted from his life because of that. Therefore, in order to be metaken that mistake, he instituted the recitation of Shema to enroot within himself and within his descendants that even bitter (Elokeinu) experiences in life are all compassionate (Havaya).

There was another Jew who lived by the Gam Zu Litova approach to life. That Jew was Rebbi Akiva. Rebbi Akiva coined his own motto for life which was, “Kol Mah D’avid Rachmana L’tav Avid” (whatever the Merciful One does is for the good: Berachos, chap. 9, “Haroeh”, pg. 60b). Rebbi Akiva did not just preach this teaching, he lived it. Once upon a time, Rebbi Akiva sought lodging in a certain city for himself and his family. The people in that town were not the most hospitable. After being turned away, Rebbi Akiva said, “Whatever the Merciful One does is for the good.”

They wound up camping that night in the forest at the outskirts of that town. A wind blew out his only candle, a cat ate his rooster, and a lion devoured his donkey. In each instance, Rebbi Akiva kept repeating, “Kol Mah D’avid Rachmana L’tav Avid.” The next morning, Rebbi Akiva woke up to find that the town had been ransacked by bandits who murdered everyone and stole their possessions.

Had they been in the city, they would have also been murdered. Had they had a burning candle, a live rooster, and a living donkey, they would have been detected by their light and by the sounds of their animals. It really did turn out to be for the best.

The Shvilei Pinchas adds that the reason why specifically Rebbi Akiva merited to be the one whose motto was Kol Mah D’avid Rachmana L’tav Avid was because the Arizal (Likkutei Torah, Parshas Vayechi) says that Rebbi Akiva was a gilgul (reincarnation) of Ya’akov Avinu.

By the way, there is scriptural support to this idea in the pasuk which tells us about the blessing which Ya’akov gave to Yoseph before he (Ya’akov) died. The pasuk says, “Midei Avir Ya’akov Misham Roeh Even Yisrael” (from the hands of the mighty power of Ya’akov, from there he shepherded the stone of Israel; Parshas Vayechi, 49:24). When you take the Hebrew words, “Avir Ya’akov” and rearrange their letters, they spell “Rebbi Akiva.” This teaches us that the “might of Ya’akov (Avir Ya’akov),” was when he came back as Rebbi Akiva and accomplished what he accomplished.

The Arizal points out that since Ya’akov Avinu and Rebbi Akiva shared the same soul, we find similar patters in their lives. For instance, Ya’akov was a shepherd of his father-in-law’s flocks, and Rebbi Akiva was also a shepherd of his father-in-law’s flocks. Ya’akov married two women (Rochel and Leah), and Rebbi Akiva also married two women, Rochel (Kesuvos, chap. 5, “Af Al Pi”, pg. 62b-63a) and the widow of Turnusrufus (a senator and governor under the Roman Empire; Meseches Avoda Zara, chap. 1, “Lifnei Eideihen”, pg. 20a) after she converted to Judaism.

The Shvilei Pinchas says that this explains why it was specifically Rebbi Akiva who adopted the motto of Kol Mah D’avid Rachmana etc. It is because Ya’akov had stumbled in this area when he complained to Pharaoh about having such a short and terrible life. Therefore, to rectify his old mistake from his previous transmigration as Ya’akov Avinu, Rebbi Akiva kept repeating to himself that everything which Hashem does is truly for the good.

Rebbi Akiva kept repeating his mantra about everything that God does is for the best until his very last breath. When the Romans were ripping Rebbi Akiva’s flesh off of his body with iron combs (Meseches Berachos, chap. 9, “Haroeh”, pg. 61b), it was time for the recitation of the Shema. Rebbi Akiva recited the Shema and extended the word Echad, whereupon his soul left his body. A Heavenly Voice came thundering out of shamayim and said, “Fortunate are you Rebbi Akiva that your soul left your body with the word Echad on your lips.”

The Shvilei Pinchas says that since Ya’akov Avinu had complained about his suffering in life, he came back as Rebbi Akiva who proceeded to give up his life to die Al Kiddush Hashem with love. Rebbi Akiva demonstrated this acceptance of suffering with love by the recitation of the Shema (Havaya Elokeinu Havaya) which he had instituted when he was Ya’akov Avinu in his previous life.

For Rebbi Akiva to die with that message on his lips shows us that, for Rebbi Akiva, it was not just lip service, but rather it was authentic and real. Therefore, when the situation presented itself to him, Rebbi Akiva took advantage of it and extended the word Echad to accept all of his suffering with love. That was the tikkun he needed for his old mistake as Ya’akov. When the Heavenly Voice said, “Blessed are you,” it meant to convey that he nailed it. Rebbi Akiva actually repaired his old mistake of complaining by accepting his current suffering graciously.

This message of the Shema is connected to Lag B’Omer in a very deep way. This is because the Chasam Sofer points out that there are 25 letters in the Shema pasuk. However, there are two Names of Havaya in that verse. Yet, we do not pronounce the Name Havaya the way that it is spelled. Rather, we pronounce that Name as Ado – dash – noy, which is the Name of God spelled Aleph Dalet Nun and Yud.

It turns out that the written Name of Hashem in that verse is the Havaya, but the spoken Name of Hashem is the “Adni” Name of God. It is as though both Names of God appear simultaneously. Since the Name “Adni” has four letters in it, and since there are two Names Adni in the verse, that comes to 8 additional letters. When you add those 8 additional letters to the 25 letters, it equals 33 letters.

Not only does the Shema now contain 33 letters, but there are two large letters in the Shema pasuk: 1) the latter Ayin at the end of the word “Shema,” and 2) the letter Dalet at the end of the word “Echad.”

When Ya’akov erected a “Gal Ed” (pile of stones which served as testimony and as a covenant between Lavan and himself (Ya’akov; Parshas Vayeitzei, 31:47), Ya’akov was already hinting at the institution of the concept of the Shema which is to accept all experiences in life lovingly, sweet or bitter. We can see this hint from the words “Gal Ed.” The word “Gal” is spelled gimmel lamed, which numerically equals 33 (which is the number of letters in the Shema sentence). The word “Ed” is spelled Ayin Dalet, which are the two large letters in the Shema sentence.

Lavan had wanted to prosecute against the Jewish people. Lavan’s prosecution against the Jews was that, according to Lavan, the Jews were always complaining. Nothing was ever good enough for them. Ya’akov defended the Jews with the institution of the concept of Shema which was hinted to in the Gal Ed. Ya’akov taught his family to live by the Shema message which is to accept every situation in life with love. Such an attitude would lead to no complaining.

Rebbi Akiva also lived up to this lesson when his 24,000 students died. Rebbi Akiva did not lose hope. He did not become sad to the point of becoming paralyzed. He did not complain. Rather, he picked himself up and moved forward and adopted a new set of students and started all over again.

This is why when Ya’akov did slip up and complain to Pharaoh, it took up specifically 33 words in the Torah, which deducted specifically 33 years of his life. Because the number 33 teaches us that, at that moment, Ya’akov did not live up to the Gal Ed expectation which is the Keriyas Shema expectation which has 33 letters in it. At that moment, Ya’akov did not live up to the message Lag B’Omer (the 33rd day) which is to accept the judgements of life with love and move forward.

It turns out that, at first, Ya’akov did live up to the message of Gam Zu Litova when he erected the Gal Ed (hinting at the 33 letters and two large letters). Then, in a moment of weakness, Ya’akov complained to Pharaoh with 33 words and did not live up to this ideal. Therefore, he instituted the recitation of Shema with its 33 letters before he died because its message is that of Gam Zu Litova, which was meant to serve as his tikkun.

That tikkun was a good beginning, but it was not a complete tikkun. Therefore, he had to come back down to this world as Rebbi Akiva who did live by the motto Kol Mah D’avid etc. It was on Lag B’Omer when Rebbi Akiva moved forward and began from scratch by teaching new students that we see how he lived with the message that all is for the good.

It turns out that Lag B’Omer and Keriyas Shema (both of which are connected to 33) share the same message. That is the acceptance of difficulties because we trust that they are all for the good.

Practically speaking, when saying the “Shema Yisrael”, let us be reminded that we are talking to ourselves and think about the meaning of the Names Havaya, Elokeinu, and Havaya, which conveys that everything that happens is Divine compassion.

Let us also get into the habit of saying Gam Zu Litova, or Kol Mah D’avid Rachmanma L’tav Avid” when aggravating things happen to us throughout the day. Besides being a mitzva, this practice will hopefully build us up to the point that if, God forbid, a real tragedy strikes, we will be better equipped to accept it and cope with it, because we have been hammering this point home again and again, day in and day out.

So, may we, B’Nei Ya’akov Avinu, all be blessed to carry on with the message of Shema like Rebbi Akiva did, drawing this inspiration from Lag B’Omer, thereby sweetening the judgements of pain and suffering with emuna and bitachon that Gam Zu Litova and that Kol Mah D’avid Rachmana L’yav Avid.

Lag Sameach to everyone!

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