The Paradox of Lag B’omer 5781

Photo: Shneur Mor Yosef

From the Inbox: Rabbi Shmuel Wagner, teacher at ULY Ocean Parkway, revisits our response to the tragic events of Lag B’omer 5781, and asks how pain and joy can co-exist at the same time.

By Rabbi Shmuel Wagner – Teacher at ULY Ocean Parkway

Like everyone, I was shaken by tragic events in Meron this Lag B’omer, where 45 people lost their lives. I happened to have been on the road Thursday afternoon and evening, so I had a lot of time and opportunity to think, but more importantly, to feel.

I feel that what made this tragedy terribly unique, is that in this case, there are no other emotions to contend with. As opposed to a terrorist attack, Rachmono Litzlan, where in addition to sadness and shock we also feel justified anger and outrage, this time there is no real place for that. We are left to grope with our uninhibited feelings of anguish and pain.

But it was not just the pain that made this tragedy unique. It was the weird aftermath. It was not followed with open mourning and fasting; on the contrary. We were ‘forced’ to go back to our Lag Ba’omer celebrations, Simchas, parades, and of course the Hatzalathon. And for good reason too. As the now-famous story that quickly circulated goes, in 5740 there was an attack in Chevron the day before Lag Ba’omer, and the Rebbe gave a clear directive to continue with the planned festivities, notwithstanding the funerals scheduled for that same day. The Rebbe quoted the Halacha of “Ma’avirin Es Hameis Milifnei Hakallah”, that a wedding celebration is given precedence over a funeral.

On paper, that sounds right. It is a Halacha after all. But. We are dealing with real people, with real emotions. How? How? How?! How is it fathomable to possibly demand joy and happiness at such a time?! Where is this magical switch in our hearts that can change the vibe? Are we meant to just fake it?

Then I thought, the whole Yom Tov of Lag Ba’omer is the same irony. We are commanded to celebrate Rashbi’s passing. Can you imagine how his students must have felt on that day? I cannot, but the closest would probably be anyone who remembers Gimmel Tammuz. Yet, they were given a clear instruction, by their Rebbe the Rashbi, to rejoice. The next year, on the first Yahrtzeit, I am sure the pain and loss was still tangibly felt by his students. But they rejoiced. And for every year after as well.

No, I am not mentioning the history of Lag Ba’omer as an attempt to assuage the sorrow. I do not personally feel the need to attempt to rationalize whatever happened. It does not make more sense to me just because the students of Rashbi had the same paradox thousands of years ago, and I do not think it should make more sense to me.

But then it struck me. I suddenly felt how the students of Rashbi found the strength to rejoice on Lag Ba’omer, and therefore, how I can too. And it has to do with the one question a person should always be asking himself: “Why?”

Each dream that I dream, each action I do, each emotion I emote – why? Where is it coming from? We all know the answer to that question: it is either from the Nefesh Ho’elokis, or from the Nefesh Habehamis. Whatever is motivated by our connection to Hashem is coming from the Nefesh Ho’elokis. Conversely, whatever is motivated from our self is coming from the Nefesh Habehamis. Because, despite the common misconception, the difference between the two is not Mitzvos and Aveiros. The difference between the two is the motivation behind any expression we have as a living being. Anything that is not a pure expression of connection to Hashem, is coming from a feeling of self. Even the good things I do, need to be examined as to where they come from; what is motivating them. Am I being kind because Hashem said to be kind or because “I feel that this is the right thing to do/I feel good when I am kind”? The difference boils down to – is my life being controlled by Hashem, or by “I”?

So, if the reason for my any happiness – on Simchas Torah, Purim, Lag Ba’omer, or every day – is because this is how I feel good and how I celebrate the day, this year must be an exception. And really the whole Yom Tov should have never been instituted in the first place. Because how can “I” be expected to even pretend to be happy on such a day?! But, if the reason for my happiness – on Simchas Torah, Purim, Lag Ba’omer, or every day – is because this is what Hashem, the Rebbe and Rashbi want from me, this year is no different. I do not need to justify (even to myself) my dancing and celebrations, because they are not mine – they are Hashem’s.

You know who teaches us how to contain our feelings of pain and be able to express our altruistic feelings of joy? Rashbi himself.

We all know the story of Rashbi’s 13 years of confinement and physical suffering. When he emerged, and his son-in-law [other opinions say father-in-law], Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair, saw him, he cried and said, “Woe is to me that I see you in this state!” to which Rabbi Shimon answered, “Fortunate are you that you see me in this state; the physical torment enabled me to reach great spiritual heights!” Is this just another story expressing Rabbi Shimon’s extreme holiness and spiritual rapture?

Not if you focus on the details of the story: Rabbi Pinchas was attempting to heal Rabbi Shimon by rubbing oils on his cracked skin, and while doing that and seeing Rabbi Shimon’s dilapidated body, Rabbi Pinchas started crying. The salty tears seeped into Rabbi Shimon’s skin and Rabbi Shimon expressed his pain. Let me repeat that for emphasis. Rabbi Shimon expressed his pain. Rabbi Shimon knew pain. He knew pain more than Rabbi Pinchas could know pain. But that is when he taught his son-in-law that he is able to see through the pain and focus on his growth. Not denying the pain, not suppressing it, rather – not focusing on it. Perspective.

Rashbi cried. And in doing that, Rashbi taught us how to cry. Rashbi taught us how to see through our own pain and never stop growing, never stop living, never stop doing what it is that we need to do; not necessarily because we want to, but because this is what Hashem wants from us.

Hashem, please help us grow, without pain. Please show us joy, without an accompanying test. Please allow us to rejoice, without it needing to be explained. Ad Mosai?!

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  1. So True.
    So beautifully written!
    Should be noted, that this requires work, real work, on one self.
    As Yidden who don’t work on Shabbos (let alone as Chassidim) we are required to do this work.

    Such alerts (as this article) are helpful, because the world view, the whole world view is the exact opposite! And it tends to creep in

    No one should ever be tested. May we all, always have only revealed good.

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