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Sefira, the number 12, and Lag BaOmer by Rabbi Chaim Brown
12,000 pairs of students die during a brief two month period, students of the greatest sage of Torah who studied for two pairs of 12 years, and all that is left is a single great scholar who paired with his son hides in a cave for 12 years. We all recognize the story of Rabbi Akiva and the loss of his students which we mark during the Omer period, the story of his greatest student, R’ Shimon bar Yochai, who was forced to flee Roman persecution and hide in a case for twelve years and whose death we mark on Lag B’Omer, but what of the number twelve? Why is this such a central focus of the events of this period?
The Bnei Yisaschar (Chodesh Tishrei Ma’amar #7 as well as other places) explains that the 13 middot of Rabbi Yishmael used to darshen the Torah correspond to the 13 middot harachamim which we invoke when we recite selichos. Yet, these thirteen are not a single unit, but actually are divided into a group of twelve middot of chessed and one middah of din. The single middah of din, which is described by the name “K-l”, corresponds to the middah of kal v’chomer. The Talmud in fact uses the simple term “din” as a reference to kal v’chomer, e.g. the mishna in Bava Kamma uses the expression “dayo l’ba min HaDin”. Halachically, there is a fundamental difference that exists between kal v’chomer and all the other middot used to explain the Torah. Only kal v’chomer can be derived purely on the basis ofsevara, logical inference, while all the other middot require a tradition handed down from one’s teacher. The greatest chessed in the world is Hashem giving of himself to us.
The middot of rachamim cause Hashem to reveal more of his presence in the world, and correspondingly, the middot we use to explain the Torah reveal how much more of Hashem’s presence is with us that we see through a superficial reading of the Torah. Yet, even at a time of din when Hashem’s presence is hidden, we must trust that he is with us and seek him out; even when there is no mesorah and tradition to explain a text of Torah, we are free to use kal v’chomer to seek and find that meaning ourselves. ‘Piha pascha b’chochma’, explains the Bnei Yisaschar, refers to themiddah of kal v’chomer which requires human intellect to reveal; ‘v’Toras chessed al leshona’ refers to the laws explicitly stated in the Torah which fall under the rubric of chessed.
The dichotomy between twelve and thirteen perhaps reflects on the relationship between the personalities of Rabbi Akiva and his student Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. The gemara in Menachos tells us that Moshe Rabeinu was given a glimpse of Rabbi Akiva teaching Torah and he was confounded by the depths of the shiur. Moshe was despondent until he heard Rabbi Akiva asked the source for a halacha, to which he replied, “halacha l’Moshe m’Sinai”, it is a law which was revealed to Moshe on Sinai. Rabbi Akiva was the father of all Torah sheBa’al Peh, but like the twelve middot of chessed and twelve middot of derush, ultimately his teaching was a revelation of what was already contained within the depths and profundity of the written Torah which was revealed by Moshe.
When Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai emerged from his cave after twelve years of study everything he set his eyes on was consumed by flame. Rashb”I could not tolerate a mundane world divorced from the revelation of G-d’s holiness. Where was G-d’s presence felt in the bustling marketplace, in the day to day activities of most people’s lives – where was the chessed of Hashem apparent? Rashb”I was missing the extra year, the thirteenthmiddah, the kal v’chomer. G-d’s presence is found not just where he reveals it, but is found where we choose to discover it through our own efforts and intelligence. Din is but a mask which awaits the revelation of kal v’chomer. After one more year, the thirteenth year, in the cave, Rashb"I emerges and sees that man running home from the marketplace is not just a last minute shopper on some trivial errand, but is preparing for Shabbos. Man’s efforts may appear mundane, but they are a necessary preparation to reveal G-d’s presence in the world.
The Shev Shamytza in his introduction quotes from the Yerushalmi that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said that had he been at Sinai he would have asked G-d for two mouths – one mouth to speak mundane matters, and a second mouth to dedicate only to Torah. Surely, asks the Shev Shamytza, it is not prohibited to engage in necessary mundane speech – why was a second mouth needed?! He answers that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai saw that the relationship between one’s mouth and Torah sheBa’al Peh is the same as the relationship between written Torah and its scroll. Not only are the words of Torah holy, but the container for their transmission is sanctified as well. While the words of written Torah sanctify the parchment the text is written on, the words of Torah sheBa’al Peh sanctify the mouth of man which utters them. It is not just the twelve middot of chessed which are Hashem’s revealed presence which are holy, but the mouth of mundane, physical man is holy as well, for it can reveal and discover the presence of Hashem even where not previously apparent.
In a sense, this teaching of Rashb”I is an extension of his Rebbe, Rabbi Akiva’s teaching that “Es Hashem Elokecha tirah” , the command to fear Hashem, also includes a mitzvah to respect talmidei chachamim who are not just transmitters of law, but who embody the holiness of Hashem’s presence by virtue of that role. Perhaps this idea sheds light on the tragic death of Rabbi Akiva’s students who, the Talmud records, failed in some way to properly honor each other. I doubt that these students did not recognize their role in transmitting the teaching their Rebbe revealed, yet perhaps each one did not recognize that the nuance and subtlety of their different personalities which added to color that transmission was like thekal v’chomer, a further revelvation, rather than a mundane obstacle to be overcome.
The power of man to create and reveal greater levels of kedusha is captured in the halachic dispute regarding when to start the entire process of sefira. The Talmud records a debate between the Sages and the Tzedukim over how to interpret the words “M’macharas haShabbos”, the day after Shabbos, when we begin counting. The Tzedukim held that the count must begin only on Sunday, but Chazal taught that Shabbos here refers to the night after the first day of Pesach, irrespective of which day of the week it falls on. Aside from the hermeneutical issue, there was an unstated philosophical disagreement underlying the dispute. Shabbos is inherently a day which is kadosh based on Hashem declaring and revealing it to be so from the first week of creation – it is a day of chessed. Yom Tov, on the other hand, depends of Bais Din’s declaration of the month on a specific date – it requires an act of din, an act of declaration and discovery by man. Shabbos is the Shechina imposing itself onto the world; Yom Tov is the day where we draw the Shechina into the world. The Chachamim understood that kedusha is not only that which descends from above, but kedusha can also come about by man rising up to draw it down into our lives through the power of Torah sheBa’al Peh.
To emulate Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Shimon bar Yoachi involves more than a trip to Meron and lighting a bonfire. It involves recognizing the inherent sanctity of all aspects of our life, of not relegating holiness to the cave and the mundane to the marketplace, but of realizing Torah as an all encompassing vision.
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