By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Life is full of changes. There are always people and ideas pushing us from all sides, trying to goad us to deviate from the words we heard at Sinai. The yeitzer hara engineers countless temptations in an attempt to cause us to veer from our Divine mission. The tests vary in every generation; the tug urging us to deviate from Torah is felt differently in each time period.
Sometimes, the urge is propelled by spiritual forces. At other times, it is by those of a physical nature. Sometimes, they seek to kill us, to arrest us, and to throw us in jails or ghettos, while at other times, they overtly temp us to abandon the path of Torah for a life led by false prophets or messiahs. There are financial inducements and there are those which promise a happier and more blissful life.
There are those thrown at us by people from within and those that come from people outside of the community. They say that the Torah is old-fashioned, that it won’t work here, and that it will hold you back. They threaten that if you stick with the Torah, you won’t be able to advance in your career, you won’t get a good job, and you won’t be able to provide for your children.
They tell us that we aren’t clean enough or honest enough, and that we don’t treat our workers properly. They say that we need them, the apikorsim, to set us straight. They seek to throw us off the path of the mesorah.
When we are confronted by those who propose deviating from our mesorah and traditional practices, we must be strong. When we are tempted by the glitz that the yeitzer hara throws in our path to entice us to sin, we have to remember that we are not only bearers of a glorious chain of tradition, faith and observance, but people who study G-d’s word, exactly as our parents, grandparents and millions of others who preceded us did, stretching back to Har Sinai.
From where does Am Yisroel derive the strength to remain loyal to the truth of the Torah? After spending the weekend at the Torah Umesorah convention, which you will read about in other pages of this newspaper, I have an answer.
To be sure, there are nisyonos, which need to be studied so that we may rise above them, but every so often it behooves us to focus on the other side of the coin, to look through an ayin tovah and contemplate the awesome accomplishments of our mechanchim, and our mechunachim; the givers and recipients of the oxygen of Yiddishkeit, our mesorah.
Under the layers of societal problems so often spoken and written about, there is a healthy, vibrant Klal Yisroel, proudly following the mesorah as charted by our rabbeim back to Sinai.
Chazal teach us that all Yomim Tovim require hachanah, preparation. Shloshim yom kodem hachag, the intense spiritual preparation begins. Just as one wouldn’t set out on a trip without the necessary supplies, so too, Chazal teach us, one cannot enter the dimension of Yom Tov without the supplies. Yom Tov is a journey and one must be ready to travel to wherever the chag takes him.
Lag Ba’omer isn’t a Yom Tov per sé, but Klal Yisroel, through the generations, have accepted it as a great day of prayer, rejoicing and salvation. It even has certain halachos of a Yom Tov in that there is no recital of Tachanun or fasting on Lag Ba’omer. It is a great day and it thus stands to reason that it requires advance preparation.
A most appropriate way to prepare for this day would be to spend four days surrounded by fifteen hundred mechanchim united by shared purpose and sense of commitment. From different locations, of different age and affiliation, they are all joined by their shared love: chinuch. The convention was one long, resounding cry of “Ashreichem Yisroel,” a powerful reminder of how fortunate we are. Seeing how those charged with the sacred mission of transmitting the one truth of this world throb with enthusiasm at their mandate, how they exude the simcha and passion of “Ashreichem Yisroel,” is witnessing an assurance that the golden chain we call the mesorah will go on.
The colors of this great convention are the perfect backdrop to the fires of Lag Ba’omer. The sounds of the long weekend reaffirming the responsibility to our children blend in perfect harmony with the clarinets of Meron.
For the convention is about loving, treasuring and protecting our mesorah, the inner theme of Lag Ba’omer’s joy. The convention is about learning to see with an ayin tovah. It is about rabbeim and moros who toil to view their students through eyes filled with love and to teach their students to see not with the cynicism so prevalent, but with optimism and faith, the resounding lesson of Rabi Akiva and Rabi Shimon bar Yochai.
It is heartwarming to watch a young man who has a family of young children, a lease on his van, and perhaps a mortgage to pay. He also wants to send his children to sleep-away camp, and maybe dreams of buying his wife a new shaitel. Yet, his excitement is generated by an innovative new idea he’s just heard that will help him teach Rashi to little Yanky, who has problems with kriah. Morah is ecstatic, because she found new tools to deal with Rochel, who tends to get distracted easily and has a hard time focusing.
These devoted ones, inspired by the lessons of Lag Ba’omer, have chosen to invest in our mesorah.
Rabi Akiva was the greatest sage of his generation. It is said that he was the shoresh of Torah Shebaal Peh. The line of transmission of the Torah from Sinai to future generations ran through him and his talmidim. When his 24,000 students were wiped out, the urge to say that it’s all over must have been overwhelming.
But Rabi Akiva recovered from his devastating loss to transmit the Torah through a new group of talmidim. It was on Lag Ba’omer that Rabi Akiva began teaching Torah to them. The seeds he planted that day, which ultimately produced a massive rejuvenation of Torah, are what we celebrate on Lag Ba’omer.
On this day, we commemorate the renewal. We celebrate the determination. We cheer the cessation of the plague. We foresee the future, bright with hope and determination.
Throughout the generations, our great people have appreciated the value of the mesorah, giving their lives to assure a future for Klal Yisroel by continuing the transition of the mesorah through teaching Torah.
When my son Yishai was learning in Eretz Yisroel, he visited Rav Leizer Kahaneman, grandson of the Ponovezher Rov. Rav Kahaneman told a story about his revered zaide.
A year after his arrival in Eretz Yisroel, the Ponovezher Rov was struck by a mysterious ailment and was unable to speak. The voice that had delivered so many brilliant shiurim and eloquent drashos was stilled. The prognosis was grim. The doctor didn’t mince words.
“Rabbi Kahaneman,” he said, “we now know why you have been unable to speak. The tests show that you have an advanced stage of throat cancer and only a short time left to live.”
The patient headed home, lost in thought. He had left behind his town, yeshiva, and beloved family as a representative of the Lithuanian government, armed with a diplomatic passport, to lobby on behalf of the Jewish refugees massing in Lita ahead of the advancing German and Russian armies. Fearing for the fate of his loved ones, he was now confronted with his own death sentence, now that he had arrived in Eretz Yisroel.
Upon his arrival home, the voice that had inspired many was stilled, yet in his heart his dream to build a yeshiva burned stronger than ever. Told by the doctors that speaking would advance the cancer, he wrote a letter to a brilliant alumnus of the Grodno Yeshiva named Rav Shmuel Rozovsky.
The Rov’s tone was serious. He explained that he was nearing the end of his earthly journey and there was something that he needed to do before his time was up. He needed to build a branch of the yeshiva he left behind in Ponovezh, now.
He had often spoken of his dream to build a yeshiva in Bnei Brak, though often mocked and ridiculed as a hopeless dreamer, badly affected by what was going on in Europe and separation anxiety from his town and talmidim.
He had spoken to Rav Shmuel previously about his idea, but Rav Shmuel was completely shocked when the Rov said that the time to open was now. He offered Rav Shmuel the job of rosh yeshiva, promising to use whatever time he had left to establish the institution.
Rav Shmuel believed. He accepted the job. He opened the yeshiva in a small shul with eight talmidim.
The Rov, not knowing which day would be his last, immersed himself in the project, laying the groundwork for the new yeshiva, one that would carry the name of his hometown, Ponovezh.
On the 28th day of Iyar in the year 1941 a small Hanochas Even Hapinah ceremony took place on an empty hill in the Zichron Meir section of Bnei Brak. There were some refreshments set up, but no one partook of them, for the attendees were ensconced in tears. Tehillim was recited and then Rav Kahaneman bent down with a small trowel of cement. He was overcome with emotion, he began shaking and shivering, his tears reached the ground, soaking the cornerstone.
As the few people who were there tuned to leave, the Chazon Ish said to the Rov, “When a project such as this begins with shnapps and mezonos, sometimes the project succeeds and sometimes it doesn’t, but when the seeds are sown with tears, there definitely will be a joyful harvest.”
One month later, on the 27th day of Sivan, the Nazis captured Lithuania and began killing Jews. Within a couple weeks the 14,000 Jews of Ponovezh, including 1,000 young people who studied in the yeshivos and mosdos of the Rov, were dead.
Subsequent tests showed that what ailed Rav Kahaneman was not cancer at all. Rather, he had given so many shiurim and drashos and spoken so frequently and emotionally about his dream, a yeshiva that would capture the greatness of the Ponovezh which he had left behind, that his vocal chords had become severely aggravated.
With his new lease on life, he merited seeing the realization of that dream, and the yeshiva that he built on a hilltop in Bnei Brak evolved into a citadel of Torah like no other.
When the Rov built the yeshiva, he thought that each brick would be his last and each tear that he shed in prayer would be his final one. He thought that any benefit, emotional, financial or social, would not be his. He would be long gone.
That is what it means to protect the mesorah above all, to see matters through eyes of eternity.
The Shulchan Aruch (428:1) states that Purim and Lag Ba’omer fall out on the same day of the week, Sunday in this year’s case. What is the significance of this?
Purim is the day when secrets are revealed, when the depths come forth. It’s the day of yotzah sod, when the hidden core shows itself.
It’s a day of revelations.
Lag Ba’omer is the day when we celebrate the master of penimiyus haTorah, for it was on this day that Rabi Shimon bar Yochai revealed the splendor of Torah’s inner dimension.
But Rabi Shimon bar Yochai did something else as well. He revealed the inner splendor of the Jewish people. He taught that “kol Yisroel bnei melachim heim,” seeing past the externals and the superficial to perceive the brilliant light within every Jew. Thus, it is he who defended the Jews of Shushan and their seeming servitude to the statue, by saying that their bowing was only external (Megillah 12).
When his years of solitude forced on by the Romans who sought his demise had ended, his holy son Rabi Elazar was unable to perceive the value of the simple Yid running to greet Shabbos with two twigs in his hands. Rabi Shimon, with his vision, saw otherwise. “Look at the preciousness of this Yid, of his love for mitzvos,” he said.
A Yid is special, his actions testimony to something higher.
Thus, the Rishonim tell us, there is an intrinsic connection between Purim and Lag Ba’omer. These joyous days are when the hidden becomes revealed, when the depths burst forth.
These are days when our eyes become uncovered.
Seforim refer to the posuk in Tehillim (119), “Gal einai ve’abitah niflaos miTorasecha,” as a hint to Lag Ba’omer, since gal contains the letters of lag. Open my eyes so that I may perceive the wonders of your Torah.
On Lag Ba’omer, our eyes should be opened and grant us a new, heightened and loftier view of each other, and of the potential of each individual.
As the centuries pass, and as the Romans of every period seek our destruction, Rabi Akiva and Rabi Shimon bar Yochai provide us with inspiration. They ensured that Am Yisroel, Torah and mesorah remain alive and flourish to this very day. In the wake of a tragedy which would have felled lesser people, Rabi Akiva strengthened himself and set about ensuring that the chain remains unbroken.
As the golus continues and the nisyonos become stronger, with no shortage of enemies from within and from outside; those charged with transmitting the torch of the mesorah, such as the Ponovezher Rov in his time and the mechanchim and mechanchos in ours, can look to Lag Ba’omer as a beacon which proclaims that the chain of greatness will never be allowed to break. The fires of Lag Ba’omer burn brightly and proclaim that the mesorah will continue uninterrupted.
And in the tradition of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, mechanchim and mechanchos enter classrooms every day to bring out the p’nim of the neshamos of Yiddishe kinder. They dedicate their lives so that “Ashreichem Yisroel“ can be said about the future generations.
Ashreihem, ve’ashreinu. Ashreichem Yisroel to be so blessed.