This week Jews all over the world celebrate the 33rd day of the Omer. This day designates two very important milestones. One is that on this day the students of Rabbi Akiva stopped dying. Secondly, this is when Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai shared the holy Zohar, a Kabbalistic work revealing the greatest secrets of the Torah, with the world.
Rabbi Shimon was one of the five new students Rabbi Akiva gathered to rebuild Torah learning after the devastating deaths of his 24,000 students. Rabbi Shimon passed away 1,859 years ago, and still so many people celebrate and remember his holiness and what he left behind for us all. Who else can we think of who passed away so many years ago yet whom we still remember and celebrate and appreciate his greatness in such a way?
Before he passed away, Rabbi Shimon told his son and pupils to be happy and rejoice on this day each and every year. The day that a holy person passes away is a very sad day for all. Yet when a holy master passes away, he is no longer restricted to a bodily form, and can help those who remain here on earth ten times more than he did while he was alive.
The day of the passing is called a yahrzeit. It is also known as a hilula – a celebration. We are celebrating the greatness that the person reached until his death, and even greater the holy books he left behind for us all to learn and become closer to Hashem. We are celebrating all the thousands of students who follow his teachings to this very day. We are celebrating life. When a person passes away he can’t take anything with him to heaven except the Torah he learned. The more students a rabbi has who are learning the holy writings that he wrote, the more everlasting he is – he actually “lives on” forever. The Torah is eternal.
On this very special day that Rabbi Shimon passed away, he instructed everyone to rejoice since on this day he revealed such a deep work of Torah that would light up the world forever. This day is like a wedding, a great party, and Rabbi Shimon himself, in all his glory, looks down from heaven at this great celebration to see who came to participate and rejoice with him. After seeing all of his wonderful guests, he then gives out “gifts” to all who are there. It’s written that a righteous man commands and G-d replies. So on this day Rabbi Shimon blesses us all with all the “gifts” we came to pray for.
In the years gone by since Rabbi Shimon’s death, the mountain of Meron has greatly changed, from a bare mountain with rocks and weeds to a place built up with beautiful homes and roads. Families and stores fill the streets of Meron as music fills the air day and night without a rest. A sense of holiness and spirituality fills the air. The music seeps into your soul and makes you feel like you can conquer the world with goodness and strength from all that Rabbi Shimon left behind for us to attain.
Standing on the long line by the bus station waiting to board the bus for the four-hour ride to Meron, I can already feel the excitement crawl into my heart. Then it is my turn to board the bus. Everyone here is going to Meron – to pray, to dance, to sing, to celebrate the greatness of Rabbi Shimon and all the Torah he left for us.
The police block main highways leading up to Meron so that all the buses will be able to bring the guests without further delay. It’s like a royal entourage leading up to the celebration. As we approach the mountain, the people on the bus start to sing songs of Rabbi Shimon, and as the men, women and, children get off the bus after the long ride, we are all light as air, filled with the exhilaration that surrounds us. All in honor of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
I start walking up the very steep mountain of Meron, which is crowded with thousands of people in a place that can fit half the amount, and yet there is room for all. Everyone’s hearts are filled with happiness and joy. And when there is love there is room for everyone. When I finally arrive at the resting place of Rabbi Shimon at the top of the hill, it is filled with even more people than there were walking up – praying, dancing, singing, and celebrating.
When night falls, a big bonfire is lit and all the thousands of Jews sing and dance around it. It’s definitely a sight that will be repeated when we will all be redeemed once again with the building of the Third Temple. Later, around three in the morning, another bonfire is lit and the dancing continues until dawn. At the break of dawn, there is silence all around. Everyone is quietly praying. You can hear the trees blowing and the mountain hugging all the thousands of guests who came to celebrate. It’s enlightening and simply breathtaking.
As the sun rises and all finish the morning prayers, the music begins once again. All the three-year-old boys who came to have their hair cut for the first time at Meron are dressed like little princes and are awaiting their own celebrations.
These are 24 hours that are so uplifting and overwhelmingly inspiring, it takes a long time to “land” back on earth and resume our regular schedule.
May the great merit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the great scholar and holy person that he was, stand for all of us, and may we dance together in holy celebrations at the Third Temple soon.