Hundreds of thousands of Yidden from throughout Eretz Yisrael and from all over the world are making their way to Meron, to daven at the kever of the great Tanna Rabi Shimon bar Yochai. Countless others will mark the hilula in their hometowns.
Lag BaOmer is a day of great contrasts. It marks the yahrtzeit of the author of the Zohar Hakadosh, the primary sefer of the most esoteric part of the Torah, yet, in the famous words of the Beis Aharon, the Rebbe of Karlin: “Whoever has emunah in Rashbi, has chizuk [from] Rabi Shimon bar Yochai. Just as Hakadosh Baruch Hu is Hashem for all, so is Reb Shimon for all — even for those who are inferior.”
It is also a day of teshuvah, of earnest tefillah, a time that has been compared to Yom Kippur. An oasis of joy within a period of mourning, it is also a day of great celebration.
The great celebration of Lag BaOmer contrasts with 7 Adar, the yahrtzeit of Moshe Rabbeinu, which in many prewar kehillos was a solemn day dedicated to drashos calling for teshuvah.
One explanation for this contrast is that on the day Moshe Rabbeinu was niftar, 300 halachos were forgotten, while on the day Rabi Shimon bar Yochai was niftar, he revealed the deepest, most esoteric teachings of the Zohar.
The Chida, based on a teaching of the Arizal, gives another profound and relevant explanation for the celebrations on Lag BaOmer:
A famous, tragic episode in our history was the petirah of the disciples of Rabi Akiva. To this day, nearly 2,000 years later, we still mourn their deaths by not cutting our hair or listening to music during the Sefirah period.
Rabi Akiva lived his first four decades as a baal middos — and an ignoramus. From the age of 40, though, with great mesirus nefesh, he dedicated himself wholly to Torah. For long years he deprived himself of his family. At first he sat at the feet of the great Torah sages of the generation, but when he finally came home 24 years later, no fewer than 24,000 talmidim of his own escorted him.
We can imagine what it looked like when Rabi Akiva gave a shiur to his thousands of talmidim, and when he came home with this vast entourage.
We can imagine how devastating a blow it was for him when, one by one, his talmidim were niftar.
Chazal declare that with their deaths the world was desolate. It appeared that the teaching of Torah — and along with it Yiddishkeit itself — was in danger of extinction. Without Torah scholars to teach the masses and carry the torch of Torah to the next generation, our people would have no future.
A lesser mortal, witnessing his world destroyed, would have been shattered and given up, living out his final days in seclusion.
Not Rabi Akiva. After a calamity of such magnitude, he simply began anew. Once he had tens of thousands of students over the length and breadth of Eretz Yisrael; now he gathered five students from the south — Rabi Meir, Rabi Yehudah, Rabi Yossi, Rabi Elazar ben Shamua, and Rabi Shimon bar Yochai — and taught them. These five then filled all of Eretz Yisrael with Torah.
The day that Rabi Akiva began to teach these talmidim was Lag BaOmer, and it is the perpetuation of Torah that we celebrate.
This approach, of focusing on the here and now and refusing to surrender to despair, ensured the continuation of Klal Yisrael.
On Lag BaOmer, as we celebrate the hilula of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, we also celebrate this lesson of his rebbi.
This applies especially to all those facing personal challenges. No matter how devastating the details of one’s past may be, and regardless of how bleak one’s future may seem, one must never give up hope, and never stop trying.
This also applies to how one should envision one’s relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu. A Yid has to realize that no matter what has transpired — no matter how far one has fallen — one must and can start anew. Even a rasha gamur (one who has sinned his entire life) who does teshuvah and regrets his past has his past wiped away (Kiddushin 40b).
It is never too late, and the past must never be allowed to stand in the way of a glorious future.
This alone is a great reason to celebrate.