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Death- To Mourn or to Celebrate?

 

 Why do we mourn the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students but celebrate on Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s yahrzeit? In honor of Lag BaOmer, I share with you Rabbi Benjamin Blech’s latest article on the topic:

On the calendar it marks the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, the days between Passover and Shavuot. The days preceding are observed as a time of mourning. It is then that 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva perished as result of a horrible plague. To mark their deaths and to commemorate this tragic event music, joy and celebrations are curtailed. But on the 33rd day we rejoice. Why? Because one of the greatest rabbis of the Talmudic era, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who lived in the second century of the Common Era, passed away on this date.

Death of Rabbi Akiva’s students is recalled with grief. Yet death of an illustrious rabbinic scholar continues to be observed by major festivities in the city of Meron, the mountain village in northern Israel where Rabbi Shimon is buried, with tens of thousands of pilgrims pouring in from all corners of the world to rejoice together.

How can we possibly reconcile these two different responses to the end of life of the righteous?

The answer perhaps lies in an extraordinary request Rabbi Shimon left with his disciples on the day of his passing. He instructed them to carefully note the time he left this earth as “the day of my joy” – the day, he explained, when he could happily leave this world knowing that he had fulfilled his divinely ordained mission.

The true tragedy of death is that it represents the closing curtain on our ability to do any more towards fulfilling the reason God sent our soul down to earth. It is only what we bring to that moment that can earn us a legacy of achievements. Death ends the story of our response to our life’s divine mission. Rabbi Shimon, master of Jewish mysticism and heavenly secrets, was one of those rare blessed individuals who knew that he had succeeded in carrying out his life’s purpose. Death for him was nothing less than heaven’s “Amen” to his life of blessing.

Lag B’Omer is the holiday that serves as reminder for the need for our lives to fulfill our mission.

Some years ago, I had the privilege of speaking at a retreat for the Gathering of Titans. They are a group of approximately 100 CEOs of major corporations who get together annually at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to refresh themselves intellectually and spiritually. On the printed program, every one of them was asked to succinctly summarize the philosophy, aims and goals of their business by way of their mission statement. Mission statements are a fact of life for every successful company. They define what the company hopes to accomplish, how it believes it will succeed, what its ultimate plans are for the future –what they hope to look like in 10, 20 and 50 years hence.

I suggested to these titans of industry they consider writing a mission statement for themselves, for their personal lives, just as they did for their businesses. It would allow them to think about the way they define success and to measure their progress as they try to balance finances and family, their wealth and their values, the way that they are judged by Forbes and the way they will be judged by their faith and their God after they leave this earth. Imagine if we had the same kind of clarity about personal goals and how we plan to achieve them as we do for our bank books. Imagine if we took our personal mission statement as seriously as a business manifesto. Imagine if we took the time to decide why God put us here on earth and then went ahead and fulfilled our life's purpose.

Many of these Titans subsequently said to me that the need to think through their mission on earth, a task they had never previously attempted for their own lives, was nothing less than life changing.

And how can we discover exactly what our mission is?

King David writes, "The steps of man are directed by God" (Psalms 37:23). The Baal Shem Tov, the eighteenth century founder of the Hassidic movement, explained this verse in the following manner: Although we go about our daily tasks at what seems to be our own initiative and will, our steps are "guided" for a spiritual and loftier purpose. We end up in a specific place so that we will have the opportunity to do what needs to be done from a divine perspective.

God leads us to the location where our mission lies; we don’t always need to find it. He orchestrates the circumstances to ensure that we have the position and tools to fulfill it. The challenge is to seize the moment. When we find ourselves in a specific place and situation, that speaks to our abilities and calls for our involvement, it is the greatest indication that there is something for us to accomplish there.

There one thing we have to be careful about as we try to determine the life task assigned to us is that we can't allow it to be the goals others have convinced us to pursue. The world tries to seduce us to spend our lives acquiring wealth and possessions. Its slogan is, "He who dies with the most toys wins." But that isn't why we were put here on Earth, and that's also why our material goods immediately abandon us at our passing. Einstein is surely wise enough to be relied on for his advice: "Try not to become a man of success, rather try to become a man of value."

Those who are mindful of the idea of mission take special notice of unexpected moments. A flight is rerouted and you suddenly find yourself in a foreign place. You unexpectedly meet people who share their problems with you. You're forced to relocate for the sake of your career and you abruptly discover new friends who need you. If we learn to view life from the perspective that nothing is merely coincidence and that, as the saying goes, "Coincidence is merely God's way of choosing to remain anonymous," we’ll find spiritual clues scattered among our daily activities.

The most unforeseeable and unexpected events are the ones that very often have the greatest meaning. They are the directional signals for our souls. The more we turn away from the worship of material objects and concentrate on affirming our values, the closer we come to fulfilling the mission that identifies the meaning of our lives.

Lag B’Omer is a powerful reminder to all of us that death may not be a curse. If, like Rabbi Shimon, we can reflect on the days of our lives as meaningful contributions to the betterment of ourselves, our family, our people and our world, if we leave a legacy of good deeds and a life of inspiration to others, our passing can partake of the extraordinary last instruction of the Rabbi who gave us a remarkable holiday – a holiday which is able to turn death into “the day of my joy.”