Life as a Wedding: The Meaning of Lag B'Omer
The finite as a portal to the Infinite.
Lag B'Omer, the thirty-third day of the Omer that links Passover to Shavuot, is the anniversary of the passing of one of the greatest sages and spiritual giants in Jewish history, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
Rabbi Shimon, who lived in Israel under Roman occupation around 165 CE (approximately one hundred years after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.), was an extraordinary scholar and author of the Zohar, the chief work of Kabbalah. He was responsible for revealing to the world the wisdom of the Kabbalah, initiating a new era in the development and exposure of Jewish mysticism. The most significant revelation came about on the day of Rabbi Shimon's passing, on which he expounded for many hours on the most intimate secrets of the divine wisdom. That day was 18 Iyar, or Lag B’Omer.
Before his passing, Rabbi Shimon instructed his disciples to observe his yahrzeit (the day of his death) as a time of joy and festivity, since the day of a person's death marks the culminating point of all that he achieved in the course of his life on earth. Since then, Jews the world over, especially at his resting place in Meron, Israel, celebrate this day with singing, dancing, kindling fires, Torah study, parades and field trips for children, and an increase in acts of love and unity.
Yet there is something strange about this day: In many Jewish works it is called “Helulah D’Rashbi” – the “wedding” anniversary of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Never before has a yahrzeit been described as a “helulah,” a wedding, and for good reason: death and marriage are diametrically opposed. Death terminates marriage. Why would a yahrzeit, a day of passing, be called a “wedding?” And why, from all yahrzeits, was it Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai's which first received the title of hilulah – wedding?
The Talmud makes the following observation:
The sage Shmuel said to his student Rabbi Yehudah: "Sharp one! Grab and eat, grab and drink! The world that we are passing through is like a wedding." (Eiruvin 54a)
Obviously, the great Talmudic sage Shmuel was not training his disciple Rabbi Yehudah for a career in gluttony! What then was he telling him? The 11th century French Talmudic commentator, Rashi, explains:
Shmuel's point was to warn his student not to wait until tomorrow to use his money, because a person has no assurance that he will be alive tomorrow to enjoy his money. Life is similar to a wedding which swiftly passes.
Sometimes, in our eagerness to think about the long-term – which is important – we forget that life is happening now and we must live in the moment. Some people will never allow themselves to enjoy their wealth and success today because there is always a “tomorrow” they have to save up for. But life is short, and you can’t delay your happiness till tomorrow. John Lennon was the not the first to understand that “Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."
This is sound advice. But to illustrate the brevity of life, why does Shmuel give the example of a wedding? There are other events that pass swiftly. Shmuel could have said, “The world that we are passing through is like a day,” or “like a dream,” or “like a thunderstorm,” or “like a sun shower.” Why the example of a wedding to describe a fleeting experience?
Clearly, Shmuel is conveying a deeper message to his student than “life is short, live today!” The example of the wedding is essential to the understanding of the message.
The Marriage Paradox
At the heart of marriage lays a paradox.
Marriage by definition is a restrictive experience. As long as you are a bachelor you can dance to your own beat. Once married you must dance to two beats – and sometimes they are divergent or conflicting.
Compromise becomes the name of the game. People are different. Men and women are very different. Living together as a husband and wife requires each to “reconfigure” the database of his or her psyche, to create space for a new “program” or, more accurately, a new “hard drive.” The self must create space for the other. Every marriage requires some form of self-abnegation.
Yet, on the other hand, marriage elevates the self to infinite heights. It is not only that through marriage one can reach his or her deepest potential; the mating of opposite genders makes reproduction possible.
All of us are mortal. Our creations, too, are mortal. Even our most impressive creations – the Roman Empire, Bear Sterns, Lehman’s Brothers – are subject to decline and death. There is only one exception: children. They outlive us, and their children outlive them. Your children constitute your link to eternity. We are here today because thousands of years ago our great great grandparents married and had children. Those ancestors are long gone; their creations are long gone; their homes, towns and cities have long crumbled. But we are here. And they are here today through us.
Through this very restricted process, you become limitless and infinite.
When you spend an extra three hours at the office building your company, you are investing in something which is at best temporary. When you spend that time with your children – reading them a story, playing a game with them, shmoozing with them, bonding with them, listening to them, validating their emotions and showering them with love and wisdom – you are investing in eternity.
This is the paradox of marriage: The marital relationship will impose limitations on your life. It will require of each party to tame his or her limitless self-expression. When a couple decides to have children, these limitations become even more dramatic. Life revolves not around your desires but your children’s needs. Yet, in this very process, you become limitless and infinite. If you want to remain free and unrestricted in your life, unbound and unlimited, you ensure your finitude. Your life ultimately comes to an end. Conversely, by choosing to become finite you become infinite; by choosing to become limited, through entering into a relationship and building a family, you access infinity and achieve eternity.
[This, of course, is not limited only to those who marry or have children. Even those who for whatever reason could not get married, or have children, their lives are enshrined in eternity, as we will explain below.]
The Ultimate Marriage
This paradox constitutes the very essence of life.
Our marriage to our spouse is essentially our second marriage. All of us experience a first marriage at the moment of birth – when our souls “marry” our bodies and they “move in” together for life. The soul and the body are two opposites: one is physical and concrete; the other is spiritual and sublime. One enjoys material pleasure; the other pines for transcendence. One craves for self-gratification; the other yearns for truth. One sees the objective of life as meeting its needs and cravings; the other – to become one with God.
The Midrash (Midrash Rabah Kohelet) presents this parable:
A farmer once married a princess and she moved to the farm. He was a nice man and treated her respectfully. The first day he taught her how to milk the cows; the second day – how to feed the mules; the third day – how to clean the horses. He gave her a comfortable bed near the stable, teaching her about the crow of the rooster that will awake her.
Yet his wife was miserable.
He consulted his father-in-law, the king. “I am trying so hard to satisfy your daughter; to no avail. She is miserable. What I’m I to do?”
The king responded: "You’re a fine and sincere young man. But you must understand: your wife grew in up in royalty; the life of the farm does not speak to her heart. You can't offer her what she needs because you have no concept that it exists."
This is a parable of the soul who married the body. The body is the peasant farmer, offering us Wall Street and condominiums and success and power and all other kinds of potatoes and tomatoes. Most of us live thinking that we are the peasant. That is why however much we have it is never enough. Because we are feeding ourselves the wrong thing. It can be everything the peasant has ever dreamed of, but it's still not enough because the princess has been raised on finer stuff.
Our bodies are nice and polite. They mean well. Our soul is anxious, so the body tells our souls: wait till you see what’s for breakfast. The body gives the soul the most delicious breakfast, lunch and dinner. But, alas, we still have a void; the void of a soul yearning for something more.
So the body takes the soul on expensive cruises and fancy vacations, builds for it fancy homes and marvelous cars, label design clothing, and precious jewelry. But the soul still feels a void. Because the soul grew up in royalty; the delights of the “farm” will not do the trick. The soul needs transcendence; it is searching for the Divine.
Only in this world, through its arduous work within and with the body, can the soul attain great spiritual heights.
As the soul enters into a body for a lifelong “marriage,” its self-expression becomes severely limited, as it is living with a partner who does not even understand its language. And unlike marriage where you can run away from your husband for a few hours to get some fresh air, the soul can never leave the body to take a break; it remains confined within the body. Sometimes, like in a marriage, the soul is completely ignored.
Yet, just as in a physical marriage that it is only as a result of the unity between man and woman that they can achieve eternity, so it is with the marriage of soul and body. It is only in this world, while clothed in the body, that the soul can transcend itself and reach heights completely impossible to attain if it would remain “single” in heaven. Only in this world, through its arduous work within and with the body, can the soul fulfill God’s mitzvot – the “children” created by the marriage of body and soul – through which it connects to God Himself. And it is only on earth that we can experience transformation, completely going out of our fixed limitations and becoming a new person.
In heaven, we are what we are. In earth, we can transform ourselves. An addict can experience recovery; an obnoxious self-centered man can become noble and kind; a crooked liar can become an honest human being. In this world, we can make real changes. True growth is possible.
Life on Earth is a Wedding
We can, at last, appreciate what Shmuel said to his student Rabbi Yehudah: "Sharp one! Grab and eat, grab and drink! The world that we are passing through is like a wedding."
A wedding may seem like a limiting experience, yet it is precisely this limitation which allows you to reach your deepest potential, and what is more, lifts you on the wings of eternity. The same is true, suggested the Talmudic sage, concerning the world we pass through. Our journeys in this world may seem so restrictive and stressful, filled with agony, hardships and pain. Even the most blessed life is filled with the anxiety of the soul confined in a material body. Yet you have to know, said the sage Shmuel, that it is through the work in this world that the soul reaches its deepest potential and experiences radical, infinite and eternal growth. It is our journey here on earth that affords us the opportunity, each moment, to become completely one with God through performing His mitzvot and saturating the cosmos with His Torah, which can only happen in this world.
This world is like a wedding – it is a portal to infinity.
Hence, “Grab and eat! Grab and drink!” Seize the moment! Grab every mitzvah that you can do in this world. Cherish every moment you have. Because what may look like a single fleeting and insignificant moment to you, is really like a wedding, it is a gateway to the deepest of the deep and the holiest of the holy. Every moment spent in this word bringing holiness and goodness into our world, carries within it the most awesome potential – the potential to fulfill God's plan and become One with His essence.
This world, and every moment we enjoy in it, is like a wedding – it is a portal to infinity. Grab every opportunity to study Torah, to observe mitzvot, to serve God, to do a favor to another person, because you can’t do any of this in heaven’s paradise.
The Gift of Kabbalah
This is why it was the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai that came to be defined as “hilula,” as a wedding. For he was the one who gave the Jewish world the gift of Kabbalah, the study of Jewish mysticism and spirituality. What is Kabbalah?
At the surface, Judaism is all about structure – performing fixed laws at certain times, places, in certain ways. Each mitzvah has its detailed, fixed structure etched in stone. Halacha, Jewish law, is restrictive: it obliges the Jew to do many things and to abstain from many others, and there are fixed times for everything. Came Kabbalah and revealed how each of these mitzvot is a portal to infinity, to transcend structure and touch the Divine. Kabablah focus extensively on the inner meaning of every aspect and detail of Jewish law and observance, demonstrating its cosmic significance and spiritual Divine power.
The teachings of Kabbalah explain at length the significance and purpose of every moment in this world; the sacred quality of the body; the mystery of every physical phenomenon; the depth and holiness of every creature in this world. Rabbi Shimon, in other words, is the one who showed us that life is a “wedding” – a place where limitations are opportunities for infinity.
The final day of a person’s earthly life says the mystics, marks the point at which “all his deeds, teachings and work” achieve their culminating perfection and the zenith of their impact upon our lives. So each Lag B'Omer, we celebrate Rabbi Shimon’s life and the revelation of the esoteric soul of Torah. We dance with the soul who showed us how life was a wedding, an opportunity to merge paradoxes and connect to eternity.
This essay is dedicated in loving memory of Chaya Mushka bas Menachem Mendel, whose short life was like the "wedding" described in this essay
This essay is based on a discourse by Rabbi Dov Ber, the Miteler Rebbe (1773-1827), Maamari Admur Haemtzei Vayikra vol. 2 Maamar Lehavin Einyan Helulah D’Rashbi. As well as on the discourses with the same beginning of the year 5654 (1894) by the Rebbe Rashab, and the above discourse by the Lubavitcher Rebbe from the years 5730 (1970), 5737 (1977) and Maamar Shabbos Vayeitzei, 10 Kislev 5746 (1985), published in Sefer Hamaamarim Melukat.