What is the proper way to commemorate a person’s passing?
Today it is fashionable to pay homage to the deceased by “celebrating their lives,” instead of focusing on mourning. Is this a correct approach according to Jewish tradition?
Every year, in the weeks between the holidays of Passover and Shavu’ot, we fulfill the mitzvah known as “the counting of the Omer.” During this this time period, we traditionally observe restrictions on revelry and festivities, a sign of mourning for the deaths of 24,000 disciples of Rabbi Akiva who died during this period. The Talmud tells us that these disciples were vulnerable to the plague that cut them down in their prime because they lacked proper respect for one another.
Interestingly, however, we shelve all vestiges of mourning for one day, Lag BaOmer, the 33rd day of the Omer counting. Why? Because we joyously celebrate the yahrtzeit (anniversary of the passing) of the great Talmudic sage and author of the mystical Zohar, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (one of Rabbi Akiva’s surviving students).
Is this not a classic case of a double standard? Do we mourn death or celebrate it?
Every person consists of a body and soul. The body eventually fades and returns to dust, while the immortal soul lives on for eternity. But with what is the “person” identified? Does the person die together with the body, or does he share the soul’s immortality? This depends on the person’s lifelong “affiliation.” The person whose life was affiliated with the soul, whose focus was spirituality and love of G‑d, doesn’t die. He merely moves on to a different dimension, where unencumbered by physical needs and distractions he is free to continue his pursuit of spirituality. Conversely, for the person who prioritized the desires and aspirations of the body, physical demise brings “life” to a crashing halt—his life’s focus is now forever gone.
On a deeper level, Torah and mitzvot, too, consist of a body and soul. The “revealed” side of Torah—largely comprised of the Talmud and Jewish law, the dos and don’ts—is the body of G‑d’s wisdom. The esoteric teachings of the Torah, the teachings of Kabbalah, are the soul of Torah. It is possible to be completely immersed in the brilliant minutiae of Talmudic logic, or to be meticulous in the observance of every nuance of the mitzvot, but to be as spiritually lifeless as a soulless body. The teachings of Kabbalah introduce the soul into Torah and mitzvot, explaining the profound spiritual meaning of every mitzvah in its supernal source, as well as the “spiritualization” of character which that mitzvah is intended to achieve in the heart and mind of its observer.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was the embodiment of the soul-ful person. The Zohar, which he authored, is the fundamental Kabbalistic treatise, the most definitive work on the soul of the Torah. Many years of his life were spent in a cave, where he was hiding from the Roman authorities. While there, he was incapable of performing the “body” of most mitzvot; he did not have access to matzah on Passover, or the Four Species on Sukkot. Instead, the holy books explain, he focused on the “soul” of the mitzvot: bathing in the G‑dly light which pervades every commandment. No words can better describe Rabbi Shimon’s soul-ful life than those he himself uttered on the day of his passing: “All the days of my life, I was knotted to Him in one knot . . . With Him my soul is one; with Him [my soul] is ablaze; with Him I am united.”
Such a person does not die. The yahrtzeit of such a person is duly celebrated—a celebration of the person’s immortality.
Rabbi Akiva’s students were deficient in their “soul-fulness”. Their disrespect for their colleagues stemmed from a preoccupation with externalities—body-related features and qualities. At the core, the soul of a Jew is intrinsically united with the soul of every other Jew. Thus, the soul-ful person loves and respects every Jew as naturally as he loves and cares for himself. This critical flaw led to the demise of these promising scholars. And, unlike Rabbi Shimon, their death was real—a tragedy mourned by our nation to this day.
Lag BaOmer’s lesson for us is exceedingly clear: we must choose the path which leads to immortality. This includes:
- Focusing on the soul: heeding her call and quenching her thirst for a more spiritual life. The first step in this process is allowing her to express her fiery passion through daily meaningful prayer.
- Focusing on the soul of Torah: studying the teachings of Kabbalah, specifically as they are applied and explained in the teachings of Chassidut. Join a class on the subject known as the “Tree of Life.”
- Focusing on the soul of the mitzvot: not sufficing with the physical act of any given mitzvah, but allowing the message of the mitzvah to impact our character and attitude.