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Rabbi Wagensberg on Lag B'Omer 2018


18 Iyar, 5778; May 3, 2018

War and "Peace"

Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai reached a tremendously high spiritual level in Toras Nistar during the thirteen years he spent hiding in a cave from the Romans. The Rashbi had to flee to a cave because he had spoken about the Romans in a derogatory fashion. As a result, the Romans wanted to kill him. The events which led up to his running away is as follows.

Once upon a time, Rebbi Yehuda, Rebbi Yosi, Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai, and Yehuda ben Geirim were sitting together. Rebbi Yehuda said that the Romans were fantastic because they built marketplaces, bridges, and bathhouses. Upon hearing that, Rebbi Yosi did not respond. He just kept quiet. However, the Rashbi did respond. He said that whatever the Romans did was for their own interests. The marketplaces were in order to promote prostitution. The bathhouses were to pamper and accentuate the body. The bridges were to charge taxes.

Yehuda ben Geirim shared this dialogue with other people. Eventually, the nature of this conversation leaked out to the Roman authorities. The Romans said that since Rebbi Yehuda praised us, he should be promoted with the honor to always speak first at any given forum. The Romans were not sure of Rebbi Yosi's position. Did his silence mean that he agreed with Rebbi Yehuda or did it mean that he disagreed but was too nervous to speak out against us? Therefore, they decided to have Rebbi Yosi exiled to Tzippori. However, since the Rashbi disgraced us, he should be put to death.

When this death decree was issued, the Rashbi took his son Rebbi Elazar with him and fled to a cave in Lod. They remained there for twelve consecutive years. They were engrossed in Torah learning day and night. A carob tree appeared miraculously providing them with food. A stream of water also appeared miraculously providing them with drink. Eliyahu appeared to them twice a day and taught them Toras Nistar. Eventually, the Roman Cesar died, his decrees became nullified, and they were able to come out of hiding (Shabbos 33b; Zohar Chadash, Ki Savo, pg. 59).

It turns out that the Rashbi's proficiency in Kabbala resulted from speaking out against the Romans. The Rashbi's protest triggered events which led to his mastery in Toras Hasod. Although it all worked out in the end, a question begs to be asked.

The Rashbi spoke out in opposition of the Romans in front of three people: Rebbi Yehuda, Rebbi Yosi, and Yehuda ben Geirim. The Gemara (Eiruchin pg. 16a) says that when you say something in front of three people, it is as good as publicizing it. Word will probably leak out. The Rashbi must have realized that there was at least a chance that his words might reach the Roman authorities. The Rashbi was also familiar with how the Romans dealt with opposition. They killed anybody who stood against them. Why then, would the Rashbi speak out and endanger his life? Why not be silent and keep his thoughts to himself?

The Shvilei Pinchas says that the answer to this question can be understood based on another teaching from the Rashbi. Rebbi Shimon ben Yochai said that the halacha (law) is that Eisav hates Ya'akov (Sifri Beha'alosecha, 11). Here, the word "halacha," whose root is "holech" (go), must be understood as saying that the way the world "goes" is that Eisav hates Ya'akov.

The Sefer Chasidim (Siman 1,137) says that Hashem planted a deep-seated hatred into the hearts of the nations against the Jewish people. The reason for this is to prevent the Jews from mingling with the nations. Although there may be some good things that we can learn from the nations, there are also many unacceptable and non-kosher practices amongst them that the Torah does not approve of. Therefore, Hashem wants us to be separate from them so that we do not wind up learning from those negative aspects. When we feel the anti-Semitism stemming from the nations, it keeps us at bay. We don't get too close. In this way, we can create our own bubble within which we can lead an unadulterated Torah life-style.

This hatred began with Eisav hating Ya'akov (Toldos, 25:22), and it continues until this very day. Rabbenu Bachya (Kedoshim, 20:26) adds that the mechanics which generate this hatred is as follows. When we observe Torah, we begin to behave differently than the nations with respect to how we eat, drink, and dress. You can spot an observant Jew a mile away. The nations are jealous of our Torah based life-style. This jealousy turns into hatred.

Then, the nations want to get rid of the Jews. So, they wage war against us. However, when they see that they cannot defeat us militarily, they move to plan B. Plan B is not war, it is love and peace. In other words, they begin to invite us to their parties and participate in their forms of entertainment. This is not because they love us. They want us to feel close and comfortable with them. In this way, we begin to adopt their practices. We might start dating their women. Then, we may decide to marry them and start a family with them. The children are no longer Jewish. It is just a matter of time until there are no Jewish people left. This is how Eisav can destroy the Jewish people. Their friendship is malicious.

When the Rashbi heard Rebbi Yehuda praise the Romans, he understood that the Romans granted the Jews equal access to their facilities. They granted the Jews citizenship. However, this equality was not a display of true love. Rather, it was a trap to ensnare the Jewish people. This closeness could lead to assimilation. The Rashbi said to himself that if even Rebbi Yehuda is impressed with the Romans, what's going on inside the heads of the average Jew? To the Rashbi, Jewish existence hung in the balance.

Therefore, the Rashbi took a stand. He spoke out against the Romans and said that we should not think that they love us. This is just another method of destroying us. He knew full well that his statements would leak out. He hoped they would so that all Jews would realize the danger and proceed with caution. Since this was a situation of Pikuach Nefesh (life or death). I stress the word "nefesh" (soul) because Jewish souls were in danger of disappearing. The Rashbi was willing to endanger his life in order to generate distance between the Jews and the Romans (Shvilei Pinchas).

The Rashbi learned about the willingness to give up his life to preserve Jewish identity from Rebbi Akiva, his Rebbi (Yevamos, 62b). The Romans forbade the study of Torah. Anyone who violated this law was punished by death. In spite of this law, Rebbi Akiva taught Torah publicly (Berachos, 61b). Rebbi Akiva realized why the Romans forbade Torah study. It was because Torah study makes us behave differently than the nations. The Romans wanted us to forget about Torah and become "normal." That would lead to Romanizing the Jewish people. It was a matter of Pikuach Nefesh. So, Rebbi Akiva taught Torah publicly and not in some hidden underground cheder system, because this would make the news. Rebbi Akiva wanted everybody to hear about the importance of learning Torah and living Torah in a distinct way that sets us apart from the nations. That is the key to our survival. Therefore, Rebbi Akiva was willing to give up his life for it. The Rashbi learned this lesson from his Rebbi, Rebbi Akiva (Shvilei Pinchas).

Rebbi Akiva learned this from Ya'akov Avinu. All of Ya'akov's children were righteous (Rashi Vayechi, 47:31). That is something that cannot be said about Yitzchak and Avraham because they had an Eisav and a Yishmael. Ya'akov's success to raising righteous children came from his self-sacrifice in protecting his children from foreign influences.

At first, Lavan wanted to kill Ya'akov and his entire family after they ran away from him (Passover Haggadah, Ki Savo, 26:5). When Hashem warned Lavan not to touch them, Lavan switched his plans and asked Ya'akov to make a treaty with him (Vayeitzei 31:44). Ya'akov recognized that Lavan didn't suddenly become his friend. Lavan wanted Ya'akov and his family to remain with him so that he could train Ya'akov's children (which were Lavan's grandchildren) to be just like him. The boys were still young and they would absorb Lavan's teachings like a sponge.

Ya'akov's response to this was an instruction to his sons to gather stones and build a "gal" (pile, mound; Vayeitzei, 31:46). This was like building a partition separating between Lavan and Ya'akov's family. Sometimes we have to build walls to create a buffer zone.

The same thing repeated itself with Eisav. At first, Eisav came with four hundred men to destroy Ya'akov. After finding out that Ya'akov had defeated Eisav's guardian angel, Eisav was not sure that he would be able to take Ya'akov down by force. Therefore, Eisav switched gears and began hugging and kissing Ya'akov. He even suggested that they travel side by side and live together (Vayishlach, 33:12). Ya'akov realized that Eisav was no friend. This seeming open armed gesture was sinister. He wanted to destroy Ya'akov from the inside. If he could sway Ya'akov's children to Eisav's life-style, that would mean the end of the Jews.

Now, Eisav was not an easy person to say no to. When Eisav wanted Nimrod's magical clothing which made hunting easier, Nimrod said, "No!" The next thing Nimrod knew was that his head was sliced right off of his body. In spite of that, Ya'akov's answer to Eisav was an unequivocal, "No!" Ya'akov risked his life to preserve our unique Jewish identity.

Ya'akov also educated his family so as not to become influenced by Egyptian culture. The verse says, "These are the names of the children of Israel 'Haba-im' (who were coming) to Egypt" (Shemos 1:1). The Midrash (Shemos Rabba 1:4) asks why it says "haba-im" in the present tense if the Jews had already been there for at least seventeen years. It should have said, "Asher ba-oo" (that came) which is past tense. The Belzer Rebbe explains that Ya'akov understood that a place finds favor in the eyes of its inhabitants (Sota, 47a). This means that the Jews will start enjoying Egypt and the Egyptians. If they get too comfortable there, they might also adopt Egyptian culture. There was a threat that there would be no Jews left to redeem.

Therefore, Ya'akov taught them that they should always feel like immigrants. They should always feel wet behind the ears. They should always feel like they just got off the boat. This is the meaning behind the word "haba-im." Always feel like you've just arrive today. It's OK not to speak a fluent Egyptian. It's OK to maintain that Yiddish accent when speaking Egyptian. In this way, they will never get too close to their Egyptian counterparts and preserve their unique Jewish identity.

This is how Ya'akov wound up with all of his children being righteous. He was willing to sacrifice his very life to ensure that they would stand apart from the nations around them, preventing foreign hashkafos and practices from convincing them to leave the path of Torah.

Rebbi Akiva learned this lesson from Ya'akov Avinu, and the Rashbi learned it from Rebbi Akiva.

Kabbalistically speaking, there is a much deeper connection between Ya'akov Avinu, Rebbi Akiva, and Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai.

The Arizal (Likkutei Torah, Vayechi; Likkutei Shas, Kesuvos, 63a) says that a spark of Ya'akov Avinu's soul later became Rebbi Akiva. This is hinted to in the verse that says, "From the hand of 'Abir Ya'akov' (the mighty power of Ya'akov) from there he shepherded the stone of Israel" (Vayechi, 49:24). When the Hebrew letters of the words "Abir Ya'akov" are rearranged, they spell "Rebbi Akiva." The mighty power of Ya'akov was Rebbi Akiva, because Rebbi Akiva was a powerhouse.

In fact, when you unscramble the letters of the name "Akiva," it spells "Ya'akov" with a remaining aleph at the end, which stands for "Avinu." Since Rebbi Akiva was a gilgul of Ya'akov Avinu, they led parallel lives. Ya'akov shepherded his father-in-law's flocks (Vayeitzei, 29:15), and so did Rebbi Akiva (Kesuvos, 62b). Ya'akov married two women, Rochel and Leah, and Rebbi Akiva also married two women, Rochel, and the ex-wife of Turnusrufus, a Roman senator. When his wife converted to Judaism, Rebbi Akiva married her.

Another commonality was that just like Ya'akov risked his life to remain separate from Lavan, Eisav, and the Egyptians, so did Rebbi Akiva give up his life to keep distance between the Jews and the Romans who were Edom, who came from Eisav.

The Chiddushei Harim (Sefer Hazakos, pg. 81) says that there is an even deeper kabbalistic connection between Ya'akov and Rebbi Akiva which also includes Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai. The three Tannaic Sages who had that conversation about the Romans were all gilgulim of the three tribes who carried those same names.

Rebbi Yehuda was a gilgul of Yehuda ben Ya'akov. This is why Rebbi Yehuda was the first one to speak at any gathering. It is because Yehuda always spoke first. For example, when the brothers wanted to kill Yosef, Yehuda spoke up first convincing them not to (Vayeishev 37:26). After all, as the progenitor of kings, Yehuda was considered a king. Therefore, he always went first.

Rebbi Yosi was a gilgiul of Yosef Hatzaddik. Yosef brought an evil report about his brothers to his father (Vayeishev, 37:2). As a result, Yosef had to be exiled in order to help atone for his sin. Rebbi Yosi was also exiled by the Romans. This was because Rebbi Yosi was Yosef in a previous transmigration and still had to atone for the Lashon Hara he spoke when he was Yosef Hatzaddik. Of all places, Rebbi Yosi was exiled to Tzippori. This is because a metzora gets tzara'as for speaking Lashon Hara (Eiruchin, 16b). In the purification process of a metzora, he must bring two birds, because Lashon Hara is a bunch of babbling words. Therefore, birds which babble constantly with their chirping sounds atone for him (Rashi Metzora, 14:4). Yosef spoke Lashon Hara. When Yosef came back as Rebbi Yosi, he was still guilty of that sin. To demonstrate that his being exiled served as part of his atonement, the place where was he was exiled to was called "Tzippori" from the word "tzippor" which is a bird.

Rebbi Shimon (bar Yochai) was a gilgul of Shimon ben Ya'akov. Shimon was the instigator of the sale of Yosef. As a result of being sold, Yosef spent twelve years as a slave and in prison. This is why, later on, when the brothers came down to Egypt to purchase food, Yosef demanded that they bring Binyamin to authenticate their innocence. But, before sending them back to Canaan, Yosef kept Shimon in Egypt and locked him up in prison as collateral (Rashi Miketz, 42:24). Shimon was chosen because he caused Yosef to be imprisoned, therefore, he had to be imprisoned.

But, Shimon was only locked up for one day. So, when Shimon returned as Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai, he had to remain locked up in a cave for twelve years to atone for the twelve years that he caused Yosef to be imprisoned.

Moreover, the acronym of Shimon ben Ya'akov is made up of the letters: shin, beis, yud. The acronym of Shimon bar Yochai is also made up of the letters: shin, beis, yud. These three letters spell the word "shevi" (captive). Since Shimon caused Yosef to be a shevi, he had to be a shevi, both as Shimon ben Ya'akov and as Shimon bar Yochai.

Although Shimon did something wrong with selling Yosef, he did something right by rescuing Dina after she had been kidnapped by Shechem ben Chamor (Vayishlach, 34:25). Shimon endangered himself by taking on an entire city just to rescue Dina and create a huge buffer zone between the nations of the world and the family of Ya'akov.

Therefore, when Shimon came back as Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai, he once again took a stand against the Romans in order to protect the Jews from assimilating.

The Shvilei Pinchas says that this explains the fifth stanza in the Bar Yochai song (Written by Rabbi Shimon Lavi, Sephardic kabbalist, physician, astronomer, and poet; b. 1486 Spain; d. 1585 Lybia) which says, "And you (Rebbi Shimon) unsheathed your sword from its sheath and waved it against your enemies." Yet, nowhere in Bavli, Yerushalmi, Zohar, or Midrash does it say that the Rashbi took a sword to battle his enemies. What is this song talking about?

The Shvilei Pinchas says that the answer is that it is referring to the time that Rebbi Shimon was Shimon ben Ya'akov. The verse clearly says that Shimon took the sword and came upon the city with confidence and killed every male (Vayishlach, 34:25).

Now that we have gotten this far, one more twist will show another source for the Rashbi's mastery in Jewish mysticism, besides Eliyahu Hanavi.

The Likkutei Shoshanim says that once upon a time, the unborn spark of Rebbi Akiva entered into the body of Shechem ben Chamor for the purpose of trying to bring him close to Hashem. This is hinted to in the Gemara (Pesachim, pg. 49b) which says that Rebbi Akiva told his students that he hated Torah scholars so much that, "When I was an uneducated man, I used to say bring me a Torah scholar and I will bite him like a chamor (donkey)." Why was a donkey used as an example of a strong bite? I bet hippos bite down even harder. One answer is that Rebbi Akiva revealed to his students what had happened to his soul before it was born.

This is what Rebbi Akiva meant. "When I was an uneducated man" - inside the body of Shechem, "I said bring me a Torah scholar and I will bite him" - "just like Chamor" - my father.

Shimon saw the holy spark of Rebbi Akiva buried inside of Shechem. Shimon was concerned that instead of Rebbi Akiva bringing Shechem to the side of kedusha, maybe Shechem would imprison Rebbi Akiva on the dark side forever. Shimon had to save Rebbi Akiva. When Shimon killed Shechem, he extracted Rebbi Akiva's soul from its shevi (captivity).

Generations later, Rebbi Akiva, with his ruach hakodesh, remembered that he was once inside of Shechem. He remembered how Shimon had saved him. Rebbi Akiva also knew that his disciple, Rebbi Shimon (bar Yochai), was a gilgul of Shimon ben Ya'akov. Rebbi Akiva felt indebted to Rebbi Shimon. Therefore, as an act of gratitude, Rebbi Akiva taught Rebbi Shimon all of the mystical teachings he knew.

As a matter of fact, by teaching Rebbi Shimon, it was history repeating itself. Ya'akov most certainly taught his son, Shimon, just like he taught all of other children. When Rebbi Akiva - gilgul Ya'akov - taught Rebbi Shimon - gilgul Shimon - it was a father teaching his son all over again.

The common thread connecting all three people was that Ya'akov, Rebbi Akiva, and the Rashbi were all willing to sacrifice their lives to preserve a unique Jewish identity.

The first person to start this process was Ya'akov Avinu when he built that pile of stones to stay away from Lavan. Shimon learned from Ya'akov his father that this must always be done at all costs. This is what inspired Shimon to rescue Dina from the hands of Shechem. Therefore, when Shimon came back as the Rashbi, he risked his life, once again, to make that separation by speaking out against the Romans. That comment caused the Rashbi to hide in a cave for twelve-thirteen years during which time he became a master kabbalist. On Lag B'Omer, we celebrate our receiving the Zohar which contains Toras Nistar, which was written by the Rashbi on his yahrtzeit, Lag B'Omer.

It comes out that Toras Nistar all began with Ya'akov building that mound of stones. That single act triggered the Rashbi to make distance from the Romans which resulted in receiving Toras Nistar. Therefore, Ya'akov already hinted at Lag B'Omer with those stones by calling them a "gal." "Gal" is spelled with a gimmel and a lamed. When reversed, these two letters spell "lag" as in "Lag B'Omer." We are learning from this that the essence of Lag B'Omer is distancing ourselves from the nations of the world (Shvilei Pinchas).

The Chasam Sofer (Derashos, pg. 279) adds that the letters of "gal", gimmel and lamed, can be spelled out. A gimmel is spelled gimmel, mem, lamed. A lamed is spelled lamed mem dalet. The numerical value of all of these letters is 147, which just happens to be the amount of years that Ya'akov Avinu lived (Vayechi, 47:28). This teaches us that throughout the life of Ya'akov Avinu, he worked relentlessly by creating "gals" of separation from the nations to protect the unique nature of the Jewish people.

The Sar Shalom of Belz adds that when Ravina and Rav Ashi put the Talmud together, they wanted to hint at this gal and Lag B'Omer. Therefore, they put the Lag B'Omer story specifically on page 33 of Meseches Shabbos. The number 33 is the numerical value of "gal" and/or "lag."

The Kominka Rebbe adds even more. If you count the number of the Rashbi's teachings from the beginning of Shas until you get to the Lag B'Omer story in Meseches Shabbos, you will find that there are 32 teachings. The 33rd teaching is when the Rashbi said that whatever the Romans did was for their own interests. How do you like that? The 33rd (gal) Rashbi teaching is about making distance between ourselves and Edom. This is the essence of Lag B'Omer.

As a means of a practical application, when celebrating Lag B'Omer this year, let's try to think of just one thing that we can do to become a little less goyish and a little bit more Jewish. Maybe there is one thing that we can let go of, or maybe there is one thing we could adopt. This will be one way of connecting with the spirit of the day.

So, may we all be blessed this Lag B'Omer to follow in the footsteps of Rebbi Shimnon bar Yochai, Rebbi Akiva, and Ya'akov Avinu by distancing ourselves a little bit more from the ways of the nations around us, and by drawing a little bit closer to the ways of our holy tzaddikim, in order that we merit to witness the coming of Eliyahu Hanavi who will inform us about our freedom from this dark cave of exile which will save us from the hands of those elements among the nations who wish to destroy us, either through war or by means of love.

Lag Sameach, Warmest wishes, Aba Wagensberg

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