Lag Ba'Omer will soon be with us. A fair question is: What is Lag Ba'Omer
all about? The Pri Tzadik addressed this question as follows. The Zohar
tells us that Lag Ba'Omer commemorates the petira (the passing away) of R'
Shim'on Bar Yochai. You may wonder: why do we make make the yahrzeit --
i.e., the day in which a great Talmid Chacham passes -- into a "hilula"
(celebration)? Because, as Chazal tell us, the students truly grasp the
teachings of their teacher only after his petira. (Perhaps because when
their Rebbe was alive, the students felt that they could always rely on him.)
Another question. Why do we make such a big thing out of R' Shim'on Bar
Yochai? The answer is straightforward: because R'Shim'on bar Yochai bore the
quintessence of R' Akiva's teachings (Gitin, 67,a). And R' Akiva, in turn,
was the quintessence of Torah she'be'al peh (the Torah that HaShem taught
Moshe Rabeinu at Sinai orally. Moshe Rabeinu then transmitted those
teachings to Bnai Yisroel only by the spoken word). Thus, the Medrash tells
us that HaShem revealed to R' Akiva (and to his colleagues) teachings that
He had not revealed even to Moshe Rabeinu!
What Lag Ba'Omer is, then, is a celebration of R' Akiva, who exemplified
Torah she'be'al peh AND -- I add -- much, much more. R' Akiva was the living
example of an uneducated man who started learning late, but -- through his
self sacrifice, and the sacrifices of his wife -- became the great leader of
the generation. Likewise, by his example, R' Akiva taught extraordinary
courage and faith. After he lost his many thousands of students, he started
teaching Torah all over again -- this time to a mere five students. Also, he
carried Bar Kochba's armor. But when events proved him wrong on that issue,
he was still able to die -- tortured by the Romans -- in a exemplary
demonstration of Kiddush HaShem.
Good, so we know that R' Shimon bar Yochai, R' Akiva's prime student, died
on Lag Ba'Omer. We also know that Lag Ba'Omer is the day when we commemorate
the petirah of R' Akiva. Apart from his other features of greatness, R'
Akiva was the quintessence of the Oral Torah. At this point, a basic
question comes to mind. Would it not make much more sense to celebrate Oral
Torah not on the day when R'Akiva's talmid was niftar, but rather on the day
on which R'Akiva (himself) was niftar?
The Pri Tzadik answers this question by pointing to a brutal fact. R' Akiva
had defied the Romans; and for that, the Romans had killed him. In view of
the the Romans' continuing domination of Eretz Yisrael, it was totally out
of the question to commemorate R'Akiva's petira; for the Romans would have
treated such a celebration as rebellion. Hence, the shift, as a cover, to
R'Shim'on Bar Yochai, R' Akiva's prime student!
APPENDIX -- More from the PRI TZADIK
What Lag BaOmer is, then, is a celebration of the Oral Torah. This
interpretation fits in neatly with the date on which Lag BaOmer occurs. That
is, each of the days of Sefiras Ha'Omer is associated with a quality that
characterized one of our Tzadikim. Thus, Chessed (kindness) is associated
with Avraham; Gevura (restraint), with Yitzchok; ... and Hod (Luster), with
Aharon. And not by coincidence, the day that comes on Lag BaOmer is the
Sefira of "Hod She'Behod" -- building on Aharon's unique quality of Hod.
Note further connections that link Aharon HaKohein with Torah she'be'al peh.
Thus, in his first encounter with HaShem, Moshe declined the leadership role
that HaShem offered, claiming that his speech defect disqualified him from
the job. To which HaShem answered that Aharon, Moshe's brother, would do the
talking: "Ve'hu (i.e., Aharon) yihe'yeh le'cha le'peh".
Likewise, after Moshe received the Torah, Aharon's (spoken) teaching was a
prime channel through which the Torah was transmitted to Bnai Yisroel. And
Aharon's descendants, the kohanim, continued in this key role of
transmitting the Torah she'be'al' peh. Thus, the navi (prophet) Mal'achi (2,
7) generalizes: "Sifsei kohen yish'meru da'as, ve'Torah ye'vak'shu mi'pihu".
(That is, "The lips of a kohen will keep knowledge, and people will seek
Torah from his mouth".)