For The South African Jewish Diaspora
In the period between Pesach and Shavuot we awaken memories of events almost long forgotten that seemingly have little to do with our life as Jews today.
Rabi Akiva had 24 000 talmidim (pupils) and they all died in this time (at a rate of around 720 a day!).A tragedy, a national tragedy, but it happened some 1900 years ago.
On Lag BeOmer we celebrate(?) the yohrtzeit of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai with some very unusual and interesting customs. In Israel over half a million people flock to his grave to celebrate there.
The first clue to help us understand this mystery might lie in the fact that the Gemara in Yevamot notes that Rabi Shimon bar Yochai was a talmid of Rabi Akiva.After losing all his talmidim he didn’t lose heart but rather searched out 5 prize pupils with whom he would reinstate Torah learning in Israel. Rabi Shimon bar Yochai was one of the five-and we have it in our tradition that the day of this new beginning was Lag BeOmer.
If we look at Jewish history with regard to Hashem’s connection with the Jewish people we can divide it up into 2 periods-the period in which we had prophets and prophecy and the time since them that we don’t.
From the beginning if time we know that Hashem spoke to man.From Adam and Noach through Avraham,Yitzchak and Yaakov and Moshe and Aharon,the entire time that the Jewish people were on their land until they were exiled from it after the destruction of the first Temple. In fact prophecy continued until the era of Ezra and the Great Assembly (Anshei Knesset HaGedola) and it ceased with the passing of the last member of the Assembly-R Shimon HaTzadik.
These were the greatest days of Jewish history-all the events that the whole world knows about from the Bible happened and the great lessons and truths of mankind were learnt in the age that men were spoken to by Hashem.
However when prophecy ceased,Hashem revealed the light hidden in the depths of the Torah to His beloved nation He did this at the very period that we were losing our connection with Him allowing the hidden light of the Oral Torah to light up the world-to those who learn it and through them reveal those truths which are normally hidden from physical eyes.As Chazal teach us that after the destruction of the Temple”chacham adif meNavi” (a learned person is preferable and knows more than about what Hashem wants in this world than a Prophet)
So even after we were no longer “in touch” through prophets, Hashem revealed to us that all is to be found in the Oral Torah and that we are not alone and through learning the Torah we can arrive at the truth.
In this age of the revelation of the light of Torah,Rabi Akiva stood out as the greatest of the great and the death of his pupils was a knockout blow for our nation. Losing the enormous amount of Torah revelation that came from their learning caused many to despair and doubt crept into hearts that perhaps the Jewish people would never recover from this blow, But the great R Akiva did not despair.In his old age he started to rebuild and R Shimon was one of those who made a ‘restart’ for the Jewish people. And it was to him that Hashem revealed the deepest secrets of Kabala in the Zohar -on the day that he died. And that is why we celebrate this day, the day of the revelation of previously undiscovered aspects of Torah.
R Noach Weinberg ztz’’l (the late beloved Rosh Yeshiva of Aish HaTorah) used the 49 days of the Omer as an opportunity to learn with his students the 48 ways of attaining Torah. The Mishna in Pirkei Avot lists those character traits and that one has to develop in order to achieve excellence in Oral Torah study. Without these traits it is impossible to live in the rarified atmosphere of greatness in Torah and reach the height from which we can properly perceive its light. R Weinberg was teaching them (and us) that the way to connect with Hashem and His Torah is through the Oral Torah and in these 49 days of the Omer we have the opportunity to work on these attributes (and the 49th day for review) and be ready for a ‘restart’ in our spiritual lives on Shavuot.
Rabbi Dovid Ostroff
Influential South African Rabbi and Educator
Bein Adam Lachaveiro – The Torah Way
ה’ מסיני בא וזרח משעיר למו – Hashem asked the nations of the world if they would accept the Torah, and the known reply was, what does it require of us. Hashem, to each nation, answered with the Mitzvah that is particularly difficult for that nation and they replied no! The kushya is that they are forbidden to steal, murder or commit adultery as part of the 7 mitzvos b’nei Noach, so what did they gain by saying no? And what was the point of asking them if in any case they are forbidden to do the above?
These very mitzvos, when they are part of the 7 mitzvos or when part of the Torah are very different. The 7 mitzvos given to the nations are not intended to refine or make them better people, they are intended to keep the world in order, so that one person will not devour another person. The mitzvos of the Torah, on the other hand, are intended to refine one’s character and create an Odom. The Torah wants us to think about other people and what is good for them.
For example, the issur to murder is to knife another person to death, which a Jew and gentile or commanded equally, but we know that to embarrass someone, the gemora calls murder, but the gentile is not ordered not to embarrass fellowmen. The issur to steal is to physically rob another person, but the gemora says that if someone says shalom to you and you don’t reply with shalom, you’re a thief! because he gave you something of himself, intended to be repaid with something from you, and if you don’t, you’re taking something for free when it needs to be paid for. A gentile is not called a thief if he does not reply with shalom. The reason is because these fine actions are ‘thinking about the other person and his feelings’, which is what the Torah requires of us.
Rabbi Akiva said ואהבת לרעך כמוך, זה כלל גדול בתורה, and it is usually understood to mean, that there are many halachos in the Torah relating to fellowman, a כלל, but according to the above, there’s a different p’shat. Rabbi Akiva teaches us that all the mitzvos of bein adam lachaveiro in the Torah must be done by way of ואהבת, not just do them. It is not sufficient to do chesed to others; it must be done in a way that the other person feels your love. If the other person feels that he’s your chesed case, it’s not the chesed the Torah wants you to do.
There are two famous mitzvos in the Torah, which seem impossible to do, לא תקום ולא תטור, how does the Torah expect us to keep such mitzvos, we’re not angels?
If you ask your friend for a pen and he has three pens that work (you saw them) and he says no, and in an hour he comes and asks you for an eraser, if you say no, you are doing a לאו of נקמה. If you give him the eraser but in your heart you’re angry and upset at him and think that you’re better than him, you’re doing the לאו of נטירה, harboring anger and vengeance. But this is a ‘thinking’ mitzvah, how can the Torah ask us not to think?
It depends on how and what you think of your friend who did not give you the pen. Firstly one should think that it is Hashem who decided that you should not get a pen. Indeed that person loses the opportunity, which is not supposed to be part of my cheshbon, rather Hashem decided the outcome – I am not to get a pen, so if you want to bring it up, bring it up with Him. Secondly, think maybe your friend lost a job, was shouted at, the last person he lent a pen to did not return it – you name it, you think it. When one thinks like that about one’s fellowman, and the Torah requires it of us, one will not harbor anything in one’s heart against another person.
We read Megilas Ruth on Shavuos, because the Torah is chesed (it begins with chesed when Hashem clothed Odom and Chava, and at the end of the Torah Hashem buries Moshe, which is chesed) and Ruth did chesed with Naomi. Ruth had everything to lose when she returned with Naomi, because nobody would want to marry her as she came from Mo’av, and there was a machlokes whether one may marry her. If she returned to Mo’av, she would live in prosperity and have everything she wanted, and yet she remained with Naomi, not to leave her alone. This tremendous chesed got her Dovid HaMelech, and she is called אמא של מלכות. It was her heart and how she thought of Naomi that got her to that position.
Torah was given on Shavuos and we must accept this Torah with ahavah and ratzon. We are judged on Shavuos how we receive and accept the Torah, and this means that we must say to ourselves, and pray, that we love every aspect of the Torah and try keep everything the Torah wants us to, without compromise and without taking in things from the gentiles. Their lives are not our lives.
- The Chazon Ish, in his later years, was walking with a talmid when all of a sudden he started running and only stopped at the end of the street. His talmid ran after him, and since he’d never experienced that, asked his Rebbe what happened. The Chazon Ish replied that as they were passing a building, he heard a couple arguing, and lest they look out the window and see him and be concerned that he saw who they were, he ran for his life so as not to cause embarrassment. (Nowadays they’d be recorded and put on YouTube…).
- I witnessed how someone bumped hard into Rav Shlomo Zalman’s back, and knowing that if he turned his face to see who this careless person was would cause that person to want to die, he did not turn his head in that person’s direction. It takes tremendous control not to look, but when another person’s dignity is at stake, it can and will be done.
- A yid in Yerushalayim would go every Friday to Machane Yehuda, buy rogelach and cake, and head towards “Ezras Nashim” a hospital for very ill people, who don’t have much hope to get out alive, and hand them to each person lying there. He got nothing in return for his deeds (from humans) but his thoughts and actions were solely to make another person happy.
When we see a friend of ours do something good, whether it is chesed, or lengthening a skirt, or davening better, we HAVE TO praise them and boost them and say please teach me how to, I also want to. Get into that person’s heart and think how embarrassed or afraid of negative reactions that person is feeling, and if you reinforce his good action, your reward in this world and next is without bounds.