Parshat Bechukotai and Lag Ba'omer
On Lag Ba'omer, the 33rd day of the counting of the omer, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, whose teachings have been passed down to us in the Zohar, passed away. Rabbi Shimon, as he is more commonly called in the Mishnah,1 was Rabbi Akiva’s most devoted student and after his master was executed by the Romans, Rabbi Shimon was declared his successor.2
The day of the passing of a tzadik (righteous and holy individual) is the day that the essence of his soul is revealed. Though Rabbi Shimon is a pillar of both the revealed and concealed traditions, the essence of his soul was without a doubt entwined in revealing the secrets of the Torah in general and of the Divine in particular. As he said on his day of passing, “One fire has been burning in me my entire life, with this fire I am one, with it I have been glowing,” referring to his devotion to the secrets of the Torah. For this reason, Lag Ba’omer, the day on which the essence of Rabbi Shimon’s soul was revealed, is considered the day of the giving of the inner dimension of the Torah.
Lag Ba'omer usually falls during the week that we read the parshat Bechukotai, suggesting a connection between the two. Let us see a few examples of this connection by meditating upon just the first verse of Bechukotai:
- Parshat Bechukotai is the 33rd (לג) portion of the Torah
- The first verse has 33 letters
- The numerical value of the first two words of the portion, “If [you follow] my laws” (אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי) is 561, or 33 (read: triangle of 33, denoting the sum of integers from 1 to 33).
This last point relates the strongest with the entire counting of the omer and what the 33rd day (Lag Ba’omer) represents. When we count, we do not say, “Today is the 1st day,” “Today is the 2nd day,” all the way up to, “Today is the 33rd day of the omer.” Rather, every time we count, we implicitly include all the previous days as well, “Today is 1 day in theomer,” “…2 days in the omer,” all the way to, “…33 days in the omer.” So actually, we have implicitly been creating a triangle of days, or sum of integers. On the first day we had 1 day; on the second day we had 2 more days; on the third day 3 more days, and so on. So on the 33rd day of the omer we have actually counted not 33 days, but 1 ┴ 2 ┴ 3 ┴ .. ┴ 33 = 33 = 561. The 33rd day of the omer thus implies the number 561, which is the gematria of the first two words of parshat Bechukotai.
Revealing the Wonders of the Torah
The same letters that denote 33 (לג ), as in Lag Ba’omer—the 33rd day of the omer, when reversed also spell a word: “unveil” (גַל ). This word appears in the verse,
Unveil my eyes so that I may see the wonders of Your Torah.3
Thus, Lag Ba’omer is the day on which we have the potential of unveiling our eyes and seeing the wonders of the Torah. The day on which Rabbi Shimon’s essence is revealed most powerfully is the day on which we can all connect with the inner, wondrous dimension of the Torah and reveal it by incorporating its teachings into our lives.
Laws: Toil in the Torah
Let us now look at the content of the first verses in our parshah. They read,
If you follow my laws and keep my commandments and perform them. I will give your rains in their proper seasons and the earth will give its produce and the tree of the field will give its fruit…. I will give peace on earth, you shall rest and not be troubled and I will remove wild animals from the land and the sword will not pass through your land…. I will give my dwelling place amongst you….4
Rashi, explains that following God’s laws means to toil in the study of Torah. This toil leads to the fulfillment of the commandments and good deeds, which reflect the light of the Torah on all our surroundings.
Here too there is an implicit connection with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his book, theZohar. The literal translation of the first phrase in the parshah is “If you walk in my laws….” The Maharal of Prague explains that Rashi means that just as when a person is walking or traveling, he toils by going from place to place, visiting and revisiting the same location, each time with a new purpose and different expectations, so when one is studying Torah it should be with toil; one should learn and relearn what one has studied in greater depth. Indeed, theZohar describes that many of the teachings it brings were taught or meditated upon while Rabbi Shimon and his disciples were walking from one place to another, obviously an allusion to the toil of Torah.
These verses stand out in that they are spoken by God in the first person. The Torah is usually written in a third-person voice, and first person sentences are usually preceded by a declaration that “so and so said.” But in this exceptional case, God is speaking directly to us.
The first word of our Torah portion is “if” (אם ). The sages explain that in this case the word “if” is not simply conditional, rather it reflects a yearning and should be understood as if God is saying, “Would it be that you should follow my laws….” God’s wish is that we follow His laws so that He may shower His blessings upon us. Just as the cow’s desire to suckle her calf is greater than the calf’s desire to suckle,5 God’s desire to shower His goodness and abundance upon us exceeds our desire to receive that abundance.6 In order for these physical and spiritual blessings to take hold in reality, they must be earned. The condition for earning these blessings is toil in the study of the Torah and its fulfillment.
“I Will Give”
In the first few verses, the verb “I will give” (וְנָתַתִּי ) repeats three times, each time describing how God’s blessings manifest in reality. The three blessings are,
- I will give your rains in their proper seasons.
- I will give peace on earth.
- I will give My dwelling place amongst you.
These three gifts represent three ascending degrees of holiness, each affecting a higher dimension of reality. As discussed many times, the Ba’al Shem Tov taught us that in order to bring the Mashiach, we should meditate upon the meaning of every word of Torah and every word of our prayers in three dimensions called worlds, souls, and Divinity. In effect, we can understand these verses as it were, as God meditating on the word “I will give” and explaining its nature in each of these three dimensions. Each of the three gifts thus represents the manifestation of Godliness in each of the three dimensions of worlds, souls, and Divinity.
- Rains represent physical abundance. When the rains come in season, the crops grow in abundance, providing all creatures with physical strength and sustenance. The gift of rain is thus the meaning of “I will give” and the manifestation of the Divine in the dimension of worlds.
- Peace brings harmony to all the souls on earth. Thus, peace is the meaning of “I will give” and the manifestation of the Divine in the dimension of souls.
- God’s dwelling place among us is a gift of consciousness—we become conscious of Divinity in harmony with reality. So God’s dwelling place is the manifestation of “I will give” and God’s ultimate manifestation in the dimension of Divinity.
The order of these blessings is also progressive from the perspective of our toil; each represents a phase in God’s yearning that we follow His laws. First, rain represents our toil in the material realm. The Hebrew word for “materiality” (גַשְׁמִיוּת ) actually stems from the word “rain” (גֶשֶׁם ). It is up to us to utilize our abilities to rectify the material world. This of course cannot be done without dedicating ourselves to the study of Torah and performing its commandments as they are God’s given advice (to use the Zohar’s language) on how to perfect the world.
Just as toil from below is met by an awakening from Above, so the final result of our toil in the material realm is the revelation of Divinity from Above. The same material world which seemed so dark and devoid of Godliness suddenly lights up us the ultimate manifestation of the Almighty’s essence. This is the final stage of God placing His abode among us and our physical bodies being able to endure such a tremendous revelation.
Peace represents the intermediary level of our toil that takes place in the dimension of souls. Whereas the first and third manifestations of God’s giving involve a vertical dynamic—our toil in the material below awakens God above to reveal His abode below—peace represents a horizontal dynamic, connecting souls together.7
God does not desire that His revelation remain a strictly spiritual experience. Rather, His revelation is meant to be totally harmonious with our material existence. This is alluded to in the continuation of the blessings, “And I [God] will walk in you.”8 Rashi explains that this means that “I will walk with you in the Garden of Eden, as one of you, and you will not be flustered by Me. Does it mean that you will not fear Me? The verse continues, ‘I shall be your God!’”
Beautifully, all three of these manifestations of God’s giving are alluded to in the word “rain” (גֶשֶׁם ), the seemingly lowest and most mundane of the three levels of holiness. As noted earlier, the Hebrew word that was chosen (by the sages of the middle Ages) as a translation for “materiality” (גַשְׁמִיוּת ) actually stems from the word “rain” (גֶשֶׁם ). The initials of “rain” (גֶשֶׁם ), “peace” (שָׁלוֹם ), and “dwelling place” (מִשְׁכָּן ) spell the word “rain” (גֶשֶׁם ) itself!
Let us summarize the above in a chart,
|rain (גֶשֶׁם )
|vertical: from below to above
|peace (שָׁלוֹם )
|horizontal: souls reach out to one another
|Divine dwelling place (מִשְׁכָּן )
|vertical: from above to below
On Lag Ba’omer, when the inner secrets of the Torah are revealed, we can internalize the secret of how to merit the gifts of worlds, souls and Divinity, making them manifest in our physical world.
1. Rabbi Shimon is not only one of the most important sages in the Mishnah, he is identified as the anonymous speaker in the Sifrei, the foundational Rabbinical exegesis on Numbers and Deuteronomy (סְתַם סִפְרֵי – ר' שִׁמְעוֹן ) and the compiler of a version of the Mechilta on Exodus.
2. Jerusalem Talmud Chagigah 3:1.
3. Psalms 119:18. Our organization’s name, “Gal Einai” (גַל עֵינַי ), is taken from this verse.
4. Leviticus 26:3 and on.
5. Pesachim 112a. In fact, this metaphor was taught by Rabbi Akiva to his student Rabbi Shimon just before Rabbi Akiva was executed.
6. Indeed, the word for “if” (אִם ) can also be read as the word for “mother” (אֵם ).
7. For more on the relationship between these three dimensions, see the introduction to The Hebrew Letters.
8. Leviticus 26:12.