As mentioned in this week’s Torah portion (see Leviticus 23:15-16), we are commanded by the Torah to count forty-nine days starting from the second day of Passover. On the fiftieth day we celebrate the festival of Shavuos, commemorating the Giving of the Torah. This 49-day period is called "Counting the Omer." The Omer was a barley offering which was brought in the Temple on the day we start counting, the second day of Passover.
Lag Ba'Omer is the thirty-third day of counting the Omer. The word Lag means 33 because it is comprised of the Hebrew letters lamid and gimmel, corresponding to the numerical values of "30" and "3."
According to official Israeli reports, almost half a million people will have visited the tiny northern village of Meron in the days leading up to the holiday of Lag Ba’Omer; and more than 250,000 will be there on Lag Ba’Omer itself (this coming Wednesday evening May 25th and Thursday May 26th). That’s almost 10% of Israel’s entire population!
They are making this mass pilgrimage every year on Lag Ba’Omer in order to be at the tomb of the holy Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (known by his acronym Rashb”i), a first-century Rabbi, Kabbalist, and leader of the Jewish people, who contributed greatly to the Mishnah, is often quoted in the Talmud, and who authored the Kabbalistic Sefer HaZohar.
Lag Ba’Omer is, among other things, the day of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s yahrtzeit (otherwise known as his Yoma D’Hillula, the anniversary of his death) and this celebration was a specific request of his to his students. On that holy day, Rashb”i revealed to his students many great mystical secrets of the Kabbalah, and this was a cause of great joy for the Jewish people. Many bonfires are lit (in Meron and all across the Land of Israel) representing the spiritual fire that Rashb”i brought into the world, and there is much singing and dancing throughout the night and well into the morning hours.
Rashb”I taught us many things, but perhaps one of the most important lessons we learn from this holy man comes from a story that took place before Rashb”i was even born – and that is the power of tears:
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s father was a prominent Jew from the Tribe of Judah and a leader of the Jewish People. His mother, Sarah, was a direct descendant of Hillel the Elder, and a very righteous woman. Although his parents tried for many years, they were unable to have children. Yochai, his father, was considering divorcing his mother, and marrying a wife who will provide him with children. Sarah was continuously crying, praying and giving donations, hoping her prayers will get answered.
One Rosh Hashanah night, Yochai had a dream, and in the dream he was standing in a wide forest. The forest had many trees and some of them were fresh with fruits and others were dried out. In the forest he saw a man carrying a large jug of water, watering some of the dried out trees while passing over others. Yochai was leaning on one of the dried out trees. When the man came to the tree that Yochai was leaning on, he pulled a tiny flask of water out of his pocket and he used it to water the tree. Yochai felt the blessing in the water. The little bit of water kept the tree soaked of water. The tree blossomed and grew beautiful fruits immediately.
When Yochai woke up he told his wife about the dream. He interpreted the dream to mean that this year on Rosh Hashanah, G-d finally heard their prayers and that their dried out tree would soon bear fruit, i.e. they would be blessed with a child. One thing Yochai didn’t understand about the dream was why the man watered all the other trees with a large jug of water and only his tree with a tiny flask. His wife suggested going to Rabbi Akiva, and asking for an explanation of the dream.
Rabbi Akiva explained to them that although according to nature it was impossible for them to have children, all of Sarah’s many heartfelt prayers and sincere tears ‘broke through’ the decree and she was granted the merit to have a child. He explained further that the water in the flask that the man used to water Yochai’s dried out tree were the tears Sarah cried when she prayed. He told them she will get pregnant this year and give birth to a boy who will light up the world with his Torah. And so it happened, Yochai and Sarah had a baby boy born on Shavuos – the day we received the Torah. They called him Shimon (from the Hebrew word ‘shama’, heard) as G-d heard her prayers. [story adapted from www.geni.com ]
This story teaches us that tears are very powerful and can go a long way in getting our prayers answered.
Rabbi Yehonasan Eyebeschutz ZT”L (1690-1764) points out in Ya’aros Devash (2:11) that the Hebrew word for crying, bechi, has the same gematria (numerical value) as the Hebrew word for heart, lev (they both equal 32). This is because when one cries real tears when he prays, it is a sign that those prayers come from the heart, and they will be answered.
Sometimes we cry tears and we don’t get our prayers answered. We must know, however, that G-d doesn’t forget Jewish tears. And if we don’t get the answer we want right away, G-d has all our tears ‘stored up’ and will eventually hear our pleas.
Rabbi Paysach J. Krohn, in his delightful book Around the Maggid's Table (p. 118), tells a moving story about the Chazon Ish (Rabbi Avrohom Yeshayah Karelitz ZT”L, spiritual leader of “Chareidi” Jewry in Israel) and Rabbi Yaakov Galinsky ZT”L:
In 1950, the Chazon Ish had asked Rabbi Galinsky to keep his eye on a certain boy who had left his non-religious kibbutz to learn Torah in the Ponovezher Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. Rabbi Galinsky saw that this was not an isolated case. There had been a thin but steady stream of such boys coming back to religious observance.
Rabbi Galinsky took the liberty to ask the Chazon Ish, "Why do you suppose that so many children are now coming back to traditional Judaism, leaving behind them the ways of their non-committed parents?"
The Chazon Ish's answer took Rabbi Galinsky by surprise.
"The generation that became non-religious came from parents who were religious. These religious parents saw what was happening with their children but, for whatever reasons, they could not stop them. They cried lonely, bitter tears, they prayed, they fasted, but it was too late to stem the tide. But G-d does not forget a Jewish tear. If those tears of sincerity did not help to save their own children, they have helped for the grandchildren and in some cases, great-grandchildren. That's the reason why these children come back to religious observance today - because G-d doesn't forget Jewish tears."
One more story to share with you about tears – only these tears are not coming from a human being – but they nonetheless teach us an incredibly powerful lesson:
[This story is also told by Rabbi Paysach J. Krohn and can be found in his book Around the Maggid's Table (pp.118-119)]
The Bialystoker Maggid, R' Myrim Hillel Rappaport ZT”L (1870-1963), told how he was once walking in the street and heard a faint cry coming from inside a building. No one was doing anything about it, so he decided to see what it was all about. As he walked into the building, the crying got louder. Finally, he pinpointed it to the second floor.
He found that it came from an open apartment. When nobody answered his knock on the door, he went in to investigate. No one was there. But still he could hear the wailing. He finally located the wailing coming from a closet in one of the rooms.
He opened the closet door and saw that it was a tallis (prayer shawl) that was crying. The Maggid, quite taken aback, looked down at the tallis and said, "Tallis'l, tallis'l, why are you crying"?
The tallis responded, "My owner and his family have all left for their summer vacation. They took their clothing, food and furniture, but they left me here alone, forsaken and forgotten."
The Bialystoker Maggid smiled at the tallis and said thoughtfully, "Tallis'l, tallis'l, don't feel bad. There will come a time when your owner will take a long trip - and you will be the only thing he will take along." (There is an almost universal Jewish custom to bury a man in the tallis he wore while he was alive).
The tallis, to the Bialystoker Maggid, represented everything that is spiritual in this world. It is that, and not material things, that man 'takes along' with him after he has lived his prescribed years on this earth.
How wise then is the man who enhances his spiritual life in this world so that he has ample 'baggage' to take along with him on his final voyage!