The Uncertain Passage- The Historical Context and Spiritual Meaning of Lag B'Omer

The Rhythms of Nature – The Creation of Consciousness

The passage of time beginning on the second day of Pessach and culminating on Shavuot, the days of the counting of the Omer, comprises three different levels of meaning and experience. It must be difficult to experience the fullness of this period of the year for people who live outside of Israel. During this season, both the land and the people who lived in it were in a state of expectation. In fact, the period of the Omer resembles the “days of awe” between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It is the time for the judgement of the grain (Tractate Rosh Hashana, chapter one). An intricate balance between the forces of nature between Pessach and Shavuot, will determine whether there will be grain in the land or not. This is a period of great uncertainty.

Located near Modi'in, Neot Kedumim is a nature reserve, designed to re-create the natural world of the Bible. One of its objectives is to teach the parts of the Bible which would be difficult to grasp outside of the natural scenario of ancient Israel. Nogah Hareuveni who created and directs the reserve, has written the following about the period from Pessach to Shavuot.

Planted during the month of cheshvan, basic grains, like wheat and barley begin to come to fruition after having benefitted from the winter rains. By Purim time, they have reached about three quarters of their height. Now, from Pessach to Shavuot, the weather has begun to warm-up and though at Pessach they are still green, the time of the harvest fast approaches.

The success of the harvest will depend upon a critical balance between the chamsin heat needed by the grains to dry out, and the humidity and night time dew needed to retain the grain's moisture and prevent it from drying out completely and dying. If the winds coming from North Africa and Saudi Arabia to Israel are too strong and persistent and the climate is too hot and dry, the wheat will not have enough time to complete it's growth. If the climate remains rainy or is too moist, the grains will become susceptable to disease or will remain green and unripe. God’s voice expresses itself in the balance or imbalance created by the fusion of moist winds coming from the Mediterranean on the one hand, and dry hot winds from the Sahara desert, on the other. Only the right balance of moisture and dryness, claims Hareuveni, will ensure a plentiful harvest.

The Mishna says in the first chapter of Tractate Rosh Hashana: "There are four times during the year in which the world is judged. On Pessach the world is judged concerning the grains; on Shavuot the world is judged concerning the fruit that grows on the trees, (grapes, figs, pomegranates and dates); on Rosh Hashana all creatures pass before God like sheep (or soldiers)… on Succot the the world is judged concerning the water"

The Mishna understands that in the Land of Israel, God frames the condition of the Jewish People through the natural world. Each season is an occasion for God to share a new gift of life; to determine its scarcity or its abundance. People who are close to the natural rhythms of life in Israel experience the time between Pessach to Shavuot as a period of incubation, requiring patience and prayer. There is hope that the seed will ripen but also fear that it will not. Shavuot, the time of ripening, after one has completed counting fifty days, is the time of the birth of the great potentiality of life. God gives the Torah to the Jewish People like the grains, as a gift for them to harvest, process, use and turn into their nourishment.

But before the fruit ripens and before the Torah is given, the journey is one of great uncertainty. The the natural language of Israel is the backdrop of the condition of the Jewish People between Pessach and Shavuot.

The second level of meaning in this passage is reflected by the historic events that mark the initial stages of our history. At Pessach, we are redeemed from Egypt, and we are created as a People. We are separated from the other nations, and we are told that we have a special role to play amongst the nations.

But the night of the seder, which symbolizes the starting point of the redemption from Egypt, is not complete until we reach Shavuot. And the 49 days of the Omer connect the Exodus from Egypt with the receiving of the Torah. In a well known passage, the Ramban describes the days of the Omer as a Hol Hamoed. Counting the days increases our awarenes of the meaning of the holiday from beginning to end.

Within the historical reality of the redemption, the Jews travelled fifty days to go from Egypt to Mount Sinai. The Torah gives expression to this formative period of our collective consciousness by linking the historical events with the natural world in a surprising manner.

On the second day of Pessach, the Jewish People bring the first barley as an offering to the Temple. Later during Shavuot, on the fiftieth day, the first wheat is brought as an offering to the altar. Thus the counting of fifty days also marks the days between the first offering of the barley to the first offering of the wheat in the Temple.

What is the connection between the wheat and the barley on the one hand and the redemption from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah on the other?
Many interesting inter-relations, reflecting points of view have been suggested. However, perhaps on the most basic level, it is really the counting of the days between our first gift of barley to God on the second day of Pessach and our first gift of wheat on the altar on Shavuot, that reveals the essence of the passage of one historical event to the next.

The passage from Egypt to Sinai is a time of expectation, of waiting, and of praying for the fulfillment of our journey as a people. At the same time, it is a period in which we turn to Hashem to secure our sustenance and provide the produce that will guarantee our precarious condition. The process begun at Pessach, but not yet concluded until Shavuot, leaves us in a state of national and personal limbo. Yes, we were redeemed but we yet wait to meet God in full consciousness. And we count the days in apprehensiveness and expectation. God took us out of Egypt on the Pessach night of the redemption. Now it is our turn to prepare for a renewed, more mature, face to face meeting with God and accept the Torah.

But the strength of this passage is secured by laying the birth of our people and our encounter with God at Mount Sinai, over the rhythms of natural time. Both the natural and historic dimensions constitute the backdrop of an intense and dynamic reality where God is continuously present. These two dimensions speak to each other in a language of uncertainty and hope - the blessing of life’s sustenance promised but not yet fulfilled; the new reality of just having been redeemed but not yet being quite ready to harvest it’s spiritual gifts.

The uncertainty of this period awakens our consciousness to the precariousness of our condition as individuals in need of God’s blessing and as a People in need of redemption and spiritual transformation. We understand that God provides the raw materials, and that we must get ready for the task of turning the gifts into moral and physical nourishment. God's gift of grain and God's gift of Torah, both critical aspects of the ever uncertain Tree of Life, await the human initiative that will transform them into human civilization.

The precarious balance between the redemptive moment and the fulfillment of its promise during the Omer period was highlighted again and again by tragic events which transpired among the Jewish people after the destruction of the second Temple around the year 70 and through the Middle Ages. The Jewish People have connected the first two levels of the Omer time to this third dimension of our experience.

In the Middle Ages, many of the Crusades passed through the great Jewish communities of southern Germany and France, the great Ashkenazi communities of Rashi and the Ba'alei Hatosfot centered around the Rhine valley in cities such as Spyres, Worms and Mainz. The Crusaders from England and France marched in waves through these communities on their way to "the Holy Land" and literally destroyed many of these major Jewish communities and centers of Jewish learning at different times during the 12th and 13th(?) centuries.

The catastrophic events that affected these communities often took place in the days of the Omer. As a result, the Ashkenazi communities deepened their experience of the uncertainty of the Jewish condition in history during the Omer. That is why many Ashkenazi communities adopted the custom of reciting the" אב הרחמים "prayer on Shabbat which commemorates the destruction of those communities. The prayer is omitted on specially joyous Shabbatot, except during the counting of the Omer. Many of the customs of mourning during the Omer are much more stringent amongst the Ashkenazi communities because of their relation to the events of the Crusades in the Middle Ages. At a time when we might expect to mark the passage between the creation of our People and the receiving of the Torah joyously and in great delight, we find customs of mourning instead. Ashkenazi Jews experience the Omer as a mini Tisha B'Av. In fact, the period of the Omer is often seen as a paradox of the Jewish condition. On the one hand, we experience the certainty of closeness and the destiny of the chosen, on the other, the almost intolerable fragility and precariousness of Jewish life.

The origins of the customs of mourning during this period and the special significance of Lag B'Omer (the 33rd day) are connected specifically to the period of the destruction of the Second Temple and its immediate aftermath.

Rabbi Akiva, the Messiah, and the Moment of Despair

The central text that seems to refer to the origins of mourning customs in the days of the Omer is a Mishnah in Tractate Yebamot.

The Mishna in Yebamot 61b states


לא יבטל אדם מפריה ורביה אלא אם כן יש לו בנים.
בית שמאי אומרים: שני זכרים.
בית הלל אומרים: זכר ונקבה,
שנאמר: "זכר ונקבה בראם"

A man should not refrain from fulfilling the mitzvah to "be fruitful and multiply" unless he already has children. Bet Shamai says: two boys, and Bet Hillel says: a boy and a girl. 

Bet Hillel bases their opinion on a verse in the Torah which states that when God created Adam, he created both male and female. Bet Hillel speaks of replicating the act of God in order to fulfill the Mitzvah. As in our earlier discussion, the Mishnah deals with the need to secure the gift of life amid the uncertainty of its precarious fulfillment.

The G'mara develops the theme of the Mishna further. Bet Hillel and Bet Shamai's discussion in the Mishna seems to contradict the opinion of Rabbi Yehoshua in this matter. Rabbi Yehoshua says:
 "If a man married a woman when he was young, he should marry again when he is older (if he became widowed or his marriage failed). If a man had children when he was young, he should continue to have children when he is older".

נשא אדם אשה בילדותו - ישא אשה בזקנותו, היו לו בנים בילדותו - יהיו לו בנים בזקנותו.
מסכת יבמות דף סב ב-

It appears that unlike the opinions stated in the Mishna, Rabbi Yehoshua holds that having children is always a value. Perhaps Rabbi Yehoshua holds this to be a value for the Jewish people as a whole, or it might be an obligation on a personal level, critical for the man himself. Living within the context of a family may provide a better environment for the fulfillment of one's spiritual destiny. What is clear is that this opinion diverges from the previous opinions in the Mishna. Both Bet Shamai and Bet Hillel agree that having children exempts one, in one way or another, from being obligated to have more children. Rabbi Yehoshua holds: "Always have children". Says Rabbi Yehoshua, as stated in Kohelet : 

בבוקר זרע את זרעך ולערב אל תנח ידך כי אינך יודע אי זה יכשר הזה או זה ואם שניהם כאחד טובים

"In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening don't rest your hand, because you never know which seed will actually grow - this one or that one, or perhaps both of them will succeed".

What does Rabbi Yehoshua mean when he says: "marry early and marry late, have children early and have children late"? Rabbi Yehoshua seems to be concerned about the aspect of the uncertainty and precariousness of having children. However, he speaks not of physical survival but of the fragility of education and spiritual growth. One may spend one's days and nights thinking about one's children, worrying about them, educating them and making sure each one will be a good human being. But there always remains the possibility that not all of that good is going to find root in all of one's children. If one continues to have children and to educate them and give them as much as one can, there is a better chance that the Jewish People, one's family and one's community, will have individuals that can build the future of the Jewish People.

Rabbi Akiva paraphrases the opinion of his teacher, Rabbi Yehoshua:

למד תורה בילדותו - ילמד תורה בזקנותו,
היו לו תלמידים בילדותו - יהיו לו תלמידים בזקנותו

If one has learned Torah as a young person, one should learn Torah when one is older. If one has students when one is young, on should also have students when one is older. Continuing the words of his teacher, Rabbi Akiva says that one never knows which Torah will flourish, which Torah will give new life.

The Talmud relates a story to exemplify Rabbi Akiva's statement

אמרו: שנים עשר אלף זוגים תלמידים היו לו לרבי עקיבא מגבת עד אנטיפרס, וכולן מתו בפרק אחד, מפני שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה. והיה העולם שמם, עד שבא רבי עקיבא אצל רבותנו בדרום ושנאה להם: רבי מאיר, ורבי יהודה, ורבי יוסי, ורבי שמעון, ורבי אלעזר בן שמוע
והם הם העמידו תורה אותה שעה…

Rabbi Akiva, who lived during the third generation after the destruction of the Temple, had 12,000 study couples in his yeshiva. (Traditional Torah study is effective within the creativity of dialogue and discussion with another person. This form of learning encourages opposing opinions with the objective of generating new ideas and new syntheses). All these students died within one short period, because, says the Talmud, they did not show respect one for the other. When those 24,000 students died “the world was destroyed” - Rabbi Akiva's yeshiva was the main yeshiva in Israel at the time. The Talmud continues to relate that the catastrophic death of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students occurred between Pessach and Shavuot.

But, continues the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva did not despair and continued to teach Torah. He came to “our teachers in the South” -- Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua, and he began to train them. These five students resurrected Torah study during that period. They were the pivotal figures in reconstituting Jewish life in the North of Israel after the failure of the Bar-Kochba revolt. Among them were the teachers of Rabbi Yehudah the Prince who was responsible for the final preparation and editting of the Mishnah, the monumental work that the became the basis for Torah study and community life for generations to come.

A new dimension has now been added to the meaning of the verse: "Sow in the morning and don't quit in the evening". Rabbi Akiva might have stopped teaching from grief, from desperation, from disappointment. We know that Rabbi Akiva began to learn Torah when he was forty, and that it took him at least 24 years until his yeshiva became thecenter of Torah study in Israel. Now at the age of at least 64, probably older, 24,000 of his students die. How could he possibly go on? But Rabbi Akiva believed despite the tragedy the Torah must survive, and it did survive via his five students who are present everywhere in the Mishna.

What we also hear between the lines of this text is that because of these tragic events, the Torah almost disappeared. It was Rabbi Akiva who reconstituted the Torah through his continued teaching during that precarious and uncertain period.

It is important to emphasize the meaning of the text: “they had no respect for one another”. The promise of life in Torah study amidst tumultuous Jewish history obligates us to protect the fragile receptacle that holds that promise."The surival of Torah depends on how people who learn Torah deal with each other".

The great statement of Rabbi Akiva's perception of Torah was: "’Love your neighbor as yourself’- is the central principle of the Torah”. Did his students fail to listen to him? Did he formulate this statement only after the tragedy transpired, perhaps in response to it? Unfortunately, the point in Rabbi Akiva's life when this great teaching was taught remains a mystery. However, what is clear is that Rabbi Akiva is alluding to the precariouness of Torah in this world, where survival depends on how people listen and respond to Torah studied and interpreted in differing hues.

Most commentators believe that the conflict in Rabbi Akiva's yeshiva had to do with the Bar Kochva revolt which transpired between the years 130-135. Among the great rabbis of the time there was a serious controversy about how to view the revolt against the Romans. Was it the return of the Jewish Kingdom, promising the imminent rebuilding of the Temple itself or was it a barbaric imitation of Gentile militarism?

We must remember that the Jewish People entered Israel from the desert about a thousand three hundred years before these events. They had been exiled only once since then , and then only for 70 years, to Babylon. Who would have anticipated that a 2,000 year exile was to follow the destruction of the Second Tmple? That would have appeared to be an inconceivable, and absurd reality. Judaism was seen to be connected to the Land of Israel, to the Temple, to the worship of God in the Holy of Holies, to the worship of the priests, to the sacrifices and to every Jew's duty to visit the Temple of Jerusalem three times a year. How could there be Judaism without a national center, without a central authority, without a home for the Schehinah, without a central point of reference for the People of Israel in Israel?

And what was the meaning of exile for Jews until the destruction of the Second Temple? Exile was a short transitory passage between one Temple and the next, an opportunity for the Jewish people to reassess themselves, to re-define who they were as a nation and to re-dedicate themselves to God. After 70 years of exile, logically by the year 140, it seemed apparent to many that the time had come for the re-building of the Kingdom and the Temple in Israel.

From a historical perspective, the tragic deaths of Rabbi Akiva's students between Pessach and Shavuot symbolize the fate of a whole generation. The shattering of Rabbi Akiva's messianic dream and the cruel and barbaric victory of the Romans over Bar Kochva and his men finalize the last stages of the destruction of the Second Temple. From then on, there is little or no Jewish presence in Judea and the hopes of a Kingdom and a Temple are dashed. The long exile has begun.

When Bar Kochva led his revolt and defeated the Romans for a time, Rabbi Akiva advocated that Bar Kochva was the Messiah. He believed that Bar Kochva would drive out the Romans, lead the restoration of the Temple and restore the Jewish Kingdom. In certain respects Rabbi Akiva’s choice was similar to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook’s view nearly two thousand years later that secular zionism was the historic vehicle for the beginning of Messianic redemption. Other rabbis believed that Bar Kochva could not possibly be the Messiah because, among other things, his test of male heroism was that he required that all of his soldiers cut off a pinky from their hand.

The rabbis sent a pinky to Bar Kochva, saying: "you wish to restore the Temple but your soldiers are not going to be able to serve in the Temple because anybody who has maimed his body by cutting off a finger cannot be a priest and serve in the Temple". What they meant by this was: “You have no notion of what it takes to restore the Jewish People. You are a barbarian. No Jewish leader would do that to his soldiers”.

The Jewish communities in Israel were torn by this controversy. Rabbi Akiva, probably the greatest rabbi of the generation, saw Bar Kochva as the Messiah. Other great rabbis, including Bar Kochva's own uncle, Elazar Hamodai who was put to death by Bar Kochva, regarded him as a bandit. Many commentators understood that the term "not showing respect for one another" is connected to this serious controversy that divided Rabbi Akiva’s generation. Perhaps, claim theose commentaries, those 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva were in different camps concerning Rabbi Akiva's position vis-a-vis Bar Kochva and could not show respect for fellow students with opposing views.

The tragic death of 24,000 scholars, who were meant to become the spiritual foundations upon which Jewish life and existence would continue to flourish after the destruction of the Second Temple, helps us understand the importance placed by Rabbi Akiva on the verse: " the morning sow your seed and in the evening do not give up". These 24,000 scholars, whose political and historical viewpoints prevented them from respecting each other, were outlived by the five students who were willing to learn from each other, despite differing views. They cotinued to constitute a wellspring of new life.

Some traditions claim that Rabbi Akiva's students stopped passing away on the 33rd day of the Omer. The Kabbalistic tradition links the celebration of that day, Lag B'Omer, with the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, one of the five students who reconstituted the Torah and who passed away years later. His death on Lag B'Omer is said to be an atonement for the actions and the deaths of Rabbi Akiva's students. Because, so the Kabbalistic tradition goes, it was he, among the five remaining students, who brought about the renewal of the study of the Kabbalah in the period after the desolation of both political and spiritual life in Israel after the Bar-Kochba revolt. Many communities light fires today on Lag B'Omer eve upon leaving the synagogue and dance around the bonfire to conmemorate the ascent of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai’s soul to heaven.

The Kabbalistic Tradition and Lag B’omer

The following story explains how Lag B'Omer became connected to the re-birth of the study of Kabbalah, a root image that is connected in the view of Kabbalistic tradition to the unique personality of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai. The tradition that links Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai to the study of Kabbalah is often linked to this well known story in Tractate Shabbat.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai with his colleagues Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yossi, fellow students of Rabbi Akiva, discussed the merits of Roman civilization. Rabbi Yehuda claimed: "The Romans build bridges so that we can travel from town to town. They build baths so that there can be public hygiene. They build market places so that there can be commerce”. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai responded: “They build market places to house prostitutes. They build bath houses to enhance their beauty. They build bridges to collect taxes ".

Rabbi Shimon's opinion was leaked to the Romans who concluded that he was a dangerous dissident. Rabbi Shimon and his son were forced to flee the Romans and hide in a cave for twelve years. According to Kabbalistic tradition, Rabbi Shimon began writing the great masterpiece of Kabbalistic wisdom, the Book of the Zohar in the cave at this time.

The historical evidence of this tradition is questioned by academics. On the other hand, in his profound but difficult work, "The Voice of Prophecy", Rabbi Kook's student, Rabbi David Cohen, demonstrates that Rabbi Shimon's position in matters of Halacha reflects a concern for the inner dimension of intention rather than deed and emphasizes the spiritual dimension in many halachic questions. He claims that these Hallachic concerns indicate Rabbi Shimon’s spiritual Kabbalistic tendency.

Lag B'Omer has become a celebration of the re-birth of the inner wisdom of the Torah, revitalized within Jewish tradition by Rabbi Shimon’s heroic efforts in the cave. Tens of thousands of Jews go to the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai in Meron on Lag B'Omer and dance all night around bonfires. People sing Rabbi Shimon’s praises in Kabbalistic language and learn Zohar at his gravesite.

Each year Lag B'Omer atones for the tragedy that occurred to the generation of Rabbi Akiva by bringing to life the rebirth of the Kabbalistic tradition in that generation of destruction. At the turning point, between Pessach and Shavuot, uncertainty begins to move toward fulfillment and the spiritual limbo of the Jewish people is transformed into spiritual opportunity. The opportunity to receive the Torah anew on Shavuot waits in anticipation, after the bonfires of Lag B'Omer have been put out.

The imminent disappearance of the study of the inner wisdom of the Torah, particularly against the backdrop of military defeat, the destruction of the Temple, and the devastation of community life in Israel is readily apparent from a well-known story in Tractate Haggigah, 14/b. This story completes the rich historical fabric that provides us with a deeper understanding of Lag B'Omer.

This Talmud page describes the famous story of the four who entered the Pardes, the four who "entered" through the gates of the inner wisdom of the Torah. One, Ben Azzai, looked in and committed suicide; Ben Zoma, looked in and went crazy; Elisha Ben Abuya, looked in and denied the existence of God and Rabbi Akiva, entered in peace and exited in peace.

While we owe Rabbi Akiva the merit of having resurrected the Torah via his five students in the face of justifiable despair and discouragement, and of literally "giving" the Torah anew to the Jewish People, there is something about his persona which is deeply connected to tragedy. The devastating epidemic that killed his 24,000 students, the tragic and powerful story of three close colleague-students who were "lost" after entering the Pardes and his death as a martyr. Perhaps Rabbi Akiva became the hero of mishnaic Judaism in part because he embodied the tragic dimension of this critical period in Jewish history, and because he embodied the faith, wisdom and steadfastness to overcome those tragedies as well.

The Talmud relates three fascinating stories that chronicle the deterioration of the study of the inner wisdom of Torah after the destruction of the Second Temple. The story of the "Four who entered the Pardes" is the last story of this trilogy and represents the ultimate tragedy of that period. Each story deals with key figures in each of the three generations from the time of the destruction of the Second Temple to the generation of Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues who entered the Pardes. The first story relates a rich and engrossing study session between Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, the head of the Sanhedrin in the generation of the destruction of the Temple, and his brilliant student, Rabbi Elazar ben Arach. In the story, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai rides on a donkey, while Rabbi Elazar ben Arach, his student, is significantly the one who guides his teacher’s donkey from behind. Rabbi Elazar addresses his teacher:
“Rabbi, teach me one chapter of מעשה מרכבה , the secret wisdom of the Chariot”. The Hebrew word for riding, "רוכב" , is similar to the word for chariot, namely, "מרכבה" , insinuating perhaps that the secret of the chariot has to do with a human being riding a donkey. The Hebrew word חמור , meaning a donkey, is related to the word חומר , which is best translated as physical matter.

When Rabbi Elazar ben Arach began to explicate the "wisdom of the chariot", his teacher, Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai, climbed down from the donkey, wrapped himself in a talit and sat on a rock under an olive tree. Rabbi Elazar ben Arach asked: "Rabbi, why did you have to get down from the donkey?"

How can I sit on a donkey while you comment (דורש) on the secrets of the chariot, with the שכינה (presence of God) as a witness and the angels among us?"

מיד פתח רבי אליעזר בן ערך במעשה מרכבה ודרש:
וירדה אש מן השמיים וסיבחה כל האילנות שבשדה.
פתחו כולן ואמרו שירה. מה שירה אמרו:
הללו את ה' מן הארץ תנינים בכל תהומות

Rabbi Elazar ben Arach immediately began to comment on the secrets of the chariot. Suddenly “…fire came down from heaven and surrounded all the trees in the field and they broke out in song…..”
In the generation of the destruction of the Second Temple the presence of the Schehinah manifested in the world as fire coming down from heaven and trees breaking out in song as soon as Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai and Rabbi Elazar Ben Arach studied together. They were able to generate this reality, fusing heaven and earth, by studying and commenting on the inner wisdom of the Torah.

The first story in the trilogy relates clearly that in the generation of the destruction of the Temple there remains a tangible connection between the human perception of the wisdom of the Torah and the presence of the Schehinah in our world. Though the Temple lays in ashes, nothing has radically changed in the basic makeup of Torah and it’s intimate connection to the depths of human understanding.

In the second story, in the second generation following the destruction of the Temple, this natural binding of heaven and earth becomes blurred, the connection has become clouded.

Two students of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai say to each other:
"We shall also teach something new about the wisdom of the chariot".
Rabbi Yehoshuah and Rabbi Yossi Hacohen walk along the way and discourse.

Though it is summer, the month of Tamuz, suddenly, the sky is covered with clouds and a rainbow appears in the sky and all the angels gather around it to watch and to listen to what Rabbi Yehoshuah has to say. The angels gather together as if to watch how people dance and perform to give joy to a bride and groom. The beautiful image is one of joining together - Rabbi Yehoshuah brings together God and this world, the spirit and the body, like others at a wedding bring together husband and wife.

Rabbi Yossi Hacohen tells this story to his teacher, Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai. Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai relates a dream in which he envisioned all that transpired. He was sitting on top of Mount Sinai and then a voice from heaven cried out: "Come up here! Come up here! There is a beautiful lounge with scattered mattresses waiting for you to come up and be here. You and your students and your students' students are welcome to come up".

What is different between this story and the story of Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai and Rabbi Elazar Ben Arach? The first story generated a response from the trees, and the fire which embodied the Schinah actually descended into our reality. In the second story the study of the inner wisdom of Torah by the students of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zaakai generated a response only from the angels. The presence of God in the second story remained on Sinai. More significant, the Shechinhah rested on Sinai only in the teacher's dream.

In the second story there is something that is lost in the connection between the Schehinah and this world. It remains only within the life experience and within the memory of Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai, the teacher whose early life was spent in the Jerusalem of the Temple period. He embodies the existence of the Temple in his very life and being for his students’ generation. When he studies with one of his students, the Schehinah may still descend into this world. But without him, students who did not witness the presence of Temple may achieve the connection of the Schehinah to this world only in the dream of their teacher. It is not part of the physical, material life of Rabbi Yehoshuah and Rabbi Yossi, even though they are students of Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai and they can teach the merkava wisdom.

What will happen when both the teacher and the dream embedded in his life disappear?

During the Second Temple period, students of the Torah were deeply connected to this world, to the material and the physical, and to the teaching of the law that deals with every day life. On the other hand they were able to remain connected to the deepest levels of wisdom in Judaism, wisdom which was related to the understanding of the prophets. In the time of the Temple this could be done because there was something about the presence of God in the world which connected heaven and earth in real time. But the destruction of the Temple sundered the deepest levels of Torah knowledge from their realization in this world.

For that reason, Kabbalistic tradition links the renewal of the study of the inner wisdom of Torah study with a person who has to study in a cave. That powerful merit is connected to one who says: "The Romans? Civilization? It's all a farce, all absurd, all ego, money, power, sex. The only place where one can go to preserve the innermost dimensions of Torah study is in a cave, where one can be separated from this world". The spiritual reality of the cave after Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai is gone, along with his ability to dream the reality of the schinah in the Second Temple period, is the only refuge that can guarantees the planting of the new seed. When the natural connection between the inner wisdom of the Torah and the halachah becomes un-clear, when the physical and the spiritual are seen as if "in conflict" the study of this inner wisdom becomes as it were, an underground preoccupation. It is the political defeat of Bar Kochva, the fact that Bar Kochva cuts out the fingers of priests, the fact that Bar Kochva was not the Messiach that is the real end of Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai's dream, the real beginning of 2,000 years of exile. But, according to Kabbalistic tradition ,it is Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the cave who renews the flow of the waters of life and provides their never-ending gift of life to the far corners of the earth until the hoped for redemption.

The third story in the trilogy deals with the generation of the students' students. Four enter the Pardes, and three fail to re-enter this world, physically, emotionally or spiritually. In the generation of Rabbi Akiva it is no longer possible to hold one's personality harmoniously upon entering the depths of the relationship between God and this world. The destruction of the Temple has led, after those generations, to a terrible break between the source of life and its realization in human action and understanding. Because of the separation, Ben Zoma on the Temple Mount is disoriented. His teacher, Rabbi Yehoshuah asks: "Where are you coming from and where are you going? "
-"I see the waters above and I see the waters below and there is almost no gap between them".
Ben Zoma is unable to distinguish between the infinite power of the Divine and the autonomy of this world. He fails in his ability to preserve an independent sense of separateness in the meeting of heaven and earth.

According to the Talmud, the period following the destruction of the Second Temple is a time of the deterioration of our ability to connect the inner wisdom of the Torah with the daily realities of life in the physical, material world. In the time of the Temple, this link was a given for Torah scholars, it was part of their life and study. The generation of Rabbi Akiva’s students was one in which there were rabbis from whom to learn the inner wisdom of the Torah, but there were no students to teach. Only Rabbi Akiva’s unfailing dedication and Rabbi Shimon’s study with his son in the cave and his dream of all the generations in the future continuing to study preserved the life of Torah.

Lag B'Omer is the celebration of the new opportunity to enter Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai's dream again. It is the day when the counting of the Omer begins to change from anxiety about securing God's gift of redemption and life to the firm belief that Shavuot will bring the material physicality of our lives into contact with the presence of God. The Kabbalistic tradition sought to re-enter Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai's dream in which heaven and earth remain linked and in which human understanding of the Torah plays a critical role in fulfilling God's wish for a resting place in this world.