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Lag ba'Omer 5758
Beginning immediately after the first day of Pesach [Passover], the day which commemorates our Exodus from Egypt and Egyptian bondage, the Torah commands us to "count from the Omer" for 49 days. This Omer-count joins day zero, the Pesach holiday [= the Exodus] to day 50, the holiday of Shavuot [when we received the Torah on Mt. Sinai].
The Arizal (the great Kabbalist, Rav Yitzchak Luria of Safed) is said to have pointed out that when the number '50' is added to the numerical value of 'Mitzrayim' (Egypt), which is 300, the result is 380, or the numerical value of 'Nefesh' [soul]. (The numerical value, or 'Gematria,' of a Hebrew word, is achieved by attributing a value to each Hebrew letter based on its position in the alphabet.) On the fiftieth day after the Exodus from Egypt, we achieve a "soul."
Of course, a person always has a soul -- as long as he is alive. What the Arizal meant is that the soul of a person sometimes slumbers, or dims. "A person's soul is Hashem's candle" (Mishlei 20:27). The Nefesh [spelled N'un, P'eh, SH'in], is compared to an oil lamp [consisting of N'er, P'etilah, SH'emen], which can be lit and shine bright, or can dim and become extinguished. A Jew can bring himself closer to his Creator, or he can distance himself from the source of all existence. A Jew's soul can be set alight if he incorporates the lessons gleaned from the Exodus, and for the next 49 days prepares to receive the Torah ("there are 49 facets to the Torah," Ritva Eruvin 13b). 'Mitzrayim' + 50 equals a beaming soul, which stands ready to accept the Torah and its commandments on the fiftieth day, Shavuot.
For this very reason, though, the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot are a time when Hashem metes out strict justice. When such a unique opportunity for spiritual growth is offered us, we must take advantage of it. Those who do not may be punished for their callousness. This was the case with the students of the great scholar of the Mishnah, Rebbe Akiva:
Rebbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students [throughout Eretz Yisrael], and they all passed away in one season because they did not show each other respect ['Kavod'].... They all passed away between Pesach and Shavuot, and the world was barren until Rebbi Akiva approached [a new set of students] and taught them Torah....
Actually, a Midrash (cited by Tur and Beit Yosef, OC 493) limits the plague of the scholars to an even narrower time period: they stopped dying on Lag b'Omer -- the 33rd day of the Omer-count. (According to Maharal [Nesiv ha'Torah #12], these two Agadot complement each other. The students only *contracted* the plague until Lag b'Omer, but those who were already sick continued to die until Shavuot.) The Midrash thus splits the period between Pesach and Shavuot into two parts: the first 32 days, during which Rebbi Akiva's students suffered a particularly heavy blow, and the latter 17 days, during which their suffering was lessened.
These two periods may be easily construed to correspond to the two stages of Torah study. The Gemara tells us that when studying, "a person should first amass information, and then afterwards he should apply himself to understanding it all" (Shabbos 63a). In other places (for example, Rashi Shemot 30:3), these two stages are defined as 'Chochmah' (a broad knowledge base) and 'Binah' or 'Da'as' (in-depth analysis -- "Occam's razor"). During the first 32 days of the Omer-count, a person is expected to prepare himself to receive the Torah by amassing information, or Chochmah. The subsequent days are for analyzing what one has learned. (It is interesting to note that Chazal describe the "*32* pathways of Chochmah," Sefer Yetzirah).
In order to attain Chochmah, a person has no choice but to "learn from every person" (Pirkei Avot 4:1). He must lower himself before anyone who may have information that he is lacking. The students of Rebbi Akiva, who "did not show respect to each other" were not prepared to learn humble themselves before their peers and to learn from them. Because they were found lacking in this matter, they were punished during the *first 32* days of the Omer count, the days that represent the period for attaining Chochmah. (Maharal notes that 32 is also the numerical value of the word "Kavod," or respect. As we have shown, Kavod is indeed the trait that is necessary for attaining Chochmah.)
The next 17 days of the Omer-count are designated for growth in in- depth Talmudical analysis. Since this type of study can be accomplished, to a certain degree, by one's self, and the students of Rebbi Akiva certainly attempted to develop their analytical prowess to their utmost, they were not punished as harshly during these 17 days.
17 is the numerical value of the Hebrew word 'Tov' ('good'). My Rebbi, ha'Gaon Rav Moshe Shapiro, once pointed out that if one counts 32 words from the beginning of the Torah, he will find that the 33rd word is 'Tov!' Tov (= Binah/Da'at) always follows the first 32 (= Chochmah). (He added that the relationship between 'Tov' and 'Da'at' is alluded to in a verse in Mishlei (19:2) as well: "It is not good [Tov] for a soul [Nefesh] if it is without Da'at." When Da'at is lacking, the soul lacks 'Tov.').
Through the combination of Chochmah and Binah/Da'at that he attains during the Omer-count, a person is able to "kindle his soul," as the Arizal revealed (above, section I). The effects of both the 32-day period (= 'Kavod') and the 17-day period (= 'Tov') on the soul are attested to by the fact that both Kavod and Tov are words which are used to refer to the soul. Kavod is an oft-used synonym for "Nefesh" (Tehillim 57:9 etc.; see Introduction to the Sefer ha'Ma'or), while the letters of the word Tov, when transposed with their equivalents from the opposite side of the alphabet (the 'At-Bash' letter substitution), spell out "Nefesh."
When the soul is kindled through proper preparation for Shavuot, it shines with a powerful, Divine light. Both 'Kavod' and 'Tov' result in light. (Yechezkel 43:2, "The land was illuminated by His 'Kavod,' "; Bereishit 1:4, "Hashem saw that the light was 'Tov.' ")
It was Rebbi Akiva's mission to cultivate the light of the Torah. When his first 24,000 students failed to follow their masters modest ways, they passed away during the period before Shavuot which is reserved for increasing the light of the Torah. Eventually, Rebbi Akvia found himself another set of students, who accepted upon themselves the mission of spreading the light of the Torah to the people of their generation.
Bearing this in mind, it is truly amazing that Rebbi Akiva's name is alluded to in the end-letters of the words "Or Zaru'a la'Tzakid ul'Yishrei Lev Simchah" (= a *light shines forth* for the righteous...) -- (Tehillim 97:11).
Rebbi Akiva's eventual success in his mission is evident through the name of his prized student, Rebbi Meir. "Why was he called 'Rebbi Meir?' Because he would *light up* ('Me'ir') the eyes of the wise in matters of Halachah" (Eruvin 13b).
May we soon merit to see "a new light illuminate Zion!"