Rabbi Eliezer said: A good eye
To Rabbi Eliezer, the light of creation cannot refer simply to the light by which we see, for the simple reason that Hashem did not create the sun and the stars until the fourth day, whereas He created light on day one. If so, what was this light?
The kabbalists explain that since Hashem is everywhere, He could not begin to create the universe until He had first created a place where He was not, a spiritual blank canvas on which He would produce the greatest creative masterpiece — the universe, and humanity. Only after preparing this spiritual vacuum (the voidand darknessdescribed in the verse), could Hashem begin the act of creation, reintroducing divine energy into the spiritual void — an act described in the expression, Let there be light!
Thus Rabbi Eliezer declares that to walk the “good path” requires a “good eye,” the ability to perceive Divine light and follow it through our world of spiritual darkness. Once we cultivate the spiritual sensitivity to appreciate Torah’s Divine illumination, we will be able to cling to the good path.
Rabbi Yehoshua said: A good friend
According to Jewish law, each 24-hour day actually begins as the evening sun falls below the horizon. Just as Shabbat starts Friday evening, so too does every day of the week begin as night falls, rather than as the sun rises. The biblical source for this is the verse, And there was evening and there was morning — one day.
Human nature dictates that we truly appreciate only those things we are forced to do without. Just as the light of creation is essential, equally essential is our appreciation of that light. Hashem created darkness before light, to enable us to fully appreciate the light that illuminates our world.
Light, therefore, became a good friend to the darkness that preceded it, while the darkness provided the context with which to appreciate the light. According to Rabbi Yehoshua, adherence to the good path requires not only spiritual perception but also a context to give that perception true meaning — not only a good eye but also a good friend.
Rabbi Yossi said: A good neighbor
The kabbalists introduce us to the mystifying idea that in the earliest moments of creation, light and darkness were not divided, but were intertwined in harmonious coexistence.
After defining the light of creation as spiritual illumination of Divine will, we can interpret light as symbolic of good and darkness as symbolic of evil. Since everything Hashem does is ultimately for the good, light and darkness, good and evil, were initially, inextricably, woven together. But since the ultimate purpose of creation requires us to recognize and choose the good path, Hashem separated the two and enabled us to discern the good we must follow. As Rabbi Yossi understands a good neighbor, the ability to recognize boundaries between the light and the darkness, between good and evil, is the key to walking the good path.
Rabbi Shimon said: To foresee consequences
The Talmud explains that the creation of light, although necessary for human existence, also presented a profound danger.
Just as nuclear technology can produce energy to sustain, so too can it produce the power to annihilate. In the hands of the righteous, divine spiritual light can elevate humanity to the level of godliness. In the hands of the unscrupulous, it can be perverted to manipulate and exploit this world’s unlimited blessings. To limit the access of the wicked to His Divine light, and protect it from abuse, Hashem concealed his light in a place where the wicked would not go: the Torah.
To truly acquire Torah wisdom, the student of Torah internalizes Torah values. Torah transforms a person’s characterand activates the ability to discern possible consequences.
Rabbi Elazar said: A good heart
“The greatest distance,” our rabbis teach, “is from the head to the heart.” True wisdom comes when we internalize what we know in our minds, so that it penetrates our hearts, and becomes part of who we are.
The first four students all identified the correct source to answer their teacher’s question, and accurately interpreted its relevance. Their responses varied because they each emphasized a different critical factor in how to adhere to the good path. Perception, context, discernment, or foresight?
They erred by failing to recognize that each of the steps they identified is an integral part of a process that is incomplete without every component.
Rabbi Elazar ben Arach expressed this understanding as a good heart: only after acquiring total perspective of every facet of the Divine light can we adhere to the good path. Once we internalize Torah values, we can refine our characters, so that Torah wisdom will serve us and we serve it.
It is the total commitment to acquiring a good heart that enables one to walk the good path.This is why Rabban Yochanon declares: I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach over your words, for included in his words are all of yours.
Days of transformation
Between Pesach and Shavuot we count 49 days, from the korban omer (the offering of the first barley harvest) to the sh’tei halechem (the offering of the first wheat harvest). Sefiras HaOmer, therefore, represents our transition from creatures little better than animals, to humans more exalted than the angels. The freedom of Pesach, ironically, does not even begin the count. Freedom is mere potential. What we do with freedom defines who and what we are.
Gematria: a transformative Math Lesson
Within Rabbi Elazar’s formula of a good heart we find a profoundly mystical allusion. The numerical value of the word lev, heart, is 32; the numerical value of tov, good, is 17. Together they equal 49.
And so we discover that the first 32 days represent a transformation of the heart, where the final 17 days represent the application of our newly elevated moral character into the practice of true good, or tov. The transition point is day 33: Lag b’Omer.
So now on Day 33 of the Omer, take a moment (or 33!) to salute yourselves – for the work you do guiding your students along a critical process so that they will ultimately embody all the values articulated by Rabban Yochanon ben Zakka and thus be able to cleave to a path that is good in all ways.
* This discussion is adapted from the Chassidic classic, B’nei Yissosschar. Expanded from an article originally published on aish.com.
** Rabbi Yonason Goldson retired after 23 years in Torah education to found Ethical Imperatives, LLC. He is a professional speaker and TEDx presenter, teaching professionals how good ethics is good business. Visit him here or here.
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