As we approach the day of Lag BaOmer, our people prepare for the celebration of the passing of Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai. Many travel to the gravesite, others prepare large bonfires, and many light candles in memory of the righteous. One must wonder, in what merit did Rebbi Shimon earn this unique place in the hearts of our nation that all remember and observe this day? There were so many great Torah giants, yet none gets this special place amongst his people.
The Gemara (Bava Metzia 84b) relates that when Rebbi Elazar, son of Rebbi Shimon, died, he was not buried immediately. His body lay in an attic for 18-22 years without decaying. When he was being taken to his burial in the cave where his holy father had been laid to rest, the townspeople of Akabaria did not let them [bury him]; because during all the years Rebbi Elazar son of Rebbi Shimon slept in his upper chamber, no evil beast came to their town.
But one day — it was the eve of the Day of Atonement, when they were busily occupied — the Rabbis sent [word] to the townspeople of Biri, and they brought up his bier, and carried it to his father’s vault, which they found encircled by a serpent.
They said to it, ‘O snake, O snake, open your mouth, and let the son enter to his father.”
Thereupon it opened the mouth of the cave for them and allowed Rebbi Shimon to enter the cave of his father and receive a proper burial.
Subsequently, when his son, Rebbi Yosi ben Rebbi Elazar, passed on, the snake was again found blocking the entrance to the cave. Once again, they tried the same formula and they said to it, “O snake, O snake, open your mouth, and let the son enter to his father.” But this time the snake did not move away. They thought to say that Rebbi Elazar must have been greater than his son when a Bat Kol came out from Above, and said, “It is not because this one (Rebbi Elazar) is greater than this one (Rebbi Yosi ben Rebbi Elazar); rather, it is because Rebbi Elazar suffered the 13 years in a cave and his son did not.” The Heavenly Voice revealed that regardless of other accomplishments in Torah and mitzvot, the sufferings of a person elevates him to heights he would otherwise be unable to reach.
The Gemara goes to great lengths to describe the holiness of Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son Rebbi Elazar. The revelations of the holy Zohar that they disseminated opened new vistas to the students of Torah. Yet, for all that they learned and taught, the suffering of years in a cave outweighs all the rest.
It is safe to say that every person is subjected to pain and suffering of one sort or another. How one reacts will determine the ultimate value of the affliction. Whether it be physical or mental anguish, one must learn to accept Hashem’s decrees with acceptance and even happiness.
Dovid Hamelech said (Tehillim 119:71): “It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn Your statutes.” Rashi explains: “I felt it was good when I was suffering afflictions so that I could learn Your Torah while in pain.”
To accept misfortune with emunah and happiness is the path to spiritual growth that surpasses all others. This lesson is so vital to the health of our neshamot (souls) that Rebbi Shimon requested that the anniversary of his passing should not be spent in sadness but rather the gladness and celebration that has become customary throughout the generations. As we observe the day, we should remember the lesson and make it part of our daily lives.