As Log B’Omer rolls around, one is reminded of the holy Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi). The multitudes of Jews from all sects of Israeli life who flock to his grave site in Meron is testimony to the deep admiration that that the Jewish People have for this very special Jewish figure. The question may be asked: What makes Rashbi so special?
Rashbi was the prized student of Rabbi Akiva who was one of the Ten Martyrs of the Jewish Kingdom. Not for nothing did the Romans punish Rabbi Akiva with the death penalty and torture, for he played a central role in the organization of Bar Kochba’s rebellion. The Rambam, at the end of Hilchot Milachim even says that Rabbi Akiva was Bar Kochba’s “armsbearer”. The 24,000 students who went in Rabbi Akiva’s footsteps and fell in the war against the Romans, died during the “Sfirat HaOmer” period, and the traditional restrictions we practice today are an expression of the struggle of the Jewish nation for spiritual independence. Rabbi Akiva himself sat in prison for several years for denying the Roman decrees by holding public Torah rallys. For this he was eventually tortured and executed.
These were the two sides of the leadership of Rabbi Akiva: The willingness to go out and sacrifice for national sovereignty as well as the ultimate self-sacrifice for Torah. The fierce combination of nationalism and Torah that burned in his bones was passed on to his students, and the greatest of them all was the scholar-warrior Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai who was ordained by his Rav after the rest of the students were killed in the revolution.
Rashbi established the basic Torah foundations of the Oral Law as we know them today. His Yeshiva put out the likes of Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi who arranged the Mishnah. But just like his “Rav”, Rabbi Akiva, Rashbi went beyond the learning and teaching of Torah. He never stopped trying to bring back Jewish sovereignty to Eretz Yisrael, and abhorred with all his soul the Roman occupation. His belligerent attitude towards the Romans he made no secret of, even when it meant putting himself in danger for just expressing such opinions. We are told in Trachtate Shabbot, 33: “Once Rabbi Yehuda said, ‘How fine are the works of this nation (Rome). They have made streets, they have built bridges, they have erected baths’. Rabbi Yossi remained silent (from fear). Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai answered and said, ‘All that they have made they have made for themselves; they built market places to put harlots in them; baths to rejuvenate themselves; bridges to levy toils for themselves’.” When these words got to the Roman authorities, a price was put on his head and he was forced to go underground for 13 years. During this time, he and his son Elazar were miraculously kept alive, and to them were revealed the wonders of the hidden Torah (which was collected in the “Zohar”). These difficult times did not break him, but only reinforced his hatred for this evil empire and he continued his struggle against the Romans to liberate the Jewish People.
Though Log B’Omer falls during the “sfira” where we mourn the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students, it is a day of rejoicing. For when all the other students of Rabbi Akiva were killed in war, Rashbi managed to survive. He symbolizes the vitality of those who fought the Romans. He represents the continuation of the scholar-warrior. He is the eternal flame that cannot be extinguished, and will remain enkindled until the final victory of complete redemption, may it come speedily in our days.