The Author as Archer: A Toxophilite on Lag BaOmer
You’ve never heard of the word “toxophilite” before, have you? I didn’t think so!
As is often the case in etymology (the study of word derivations), there’s a whole story here. “Toxophily” denotes a love of archery, since the ancient Greek word toxon means “bow” and the Greek term philos means “lover.”
Suffice it to say that I’ve had more than a fleeting acquaintance with archery over the decades—and I’m always amazed at its connection with Yiddishkeit. For example, how can I ever forget that famous Gemara in Mesichta Chullin (30b) about Rabbi Yona bar Tachlifa, whose arrow Rava checked to see that that arrowheads were free of pegimos (see Rashi there)—and his amazing ability to shecht a bird in midair by severing both simanim with the razor-sharp edge of his arrowhead! Indeed, the meshicha necessary to stretch the bow so that it can launch the cheitz is a raya berura that the same movement must be executed by a shochet during an ordinary shechita.
Now the shaft of an arrow—whether composed of wood, aluminum, or graphite—has got to be as level as possible; otherwise, the missile will not reach its intended target with any degree of accuracy! And thus, we have the informal expression “straight arrow” to indicate a person who is honest and upright.
While it is true that the velocity of a hunting arrow can reach speeds of up to 280 foot-pounds per second or more, thus going so fast that you can’t even observe its movement (in contradistinction to the famous paradox of Zeno of Elea of ancient Greece, who maintained that since an arrow always is at rest in its own space, it can never achieve movement—vos noch?!), it is important for each of us also to note that an arrow always points forward—a little reminder to us of where to direct our energies.
There is a gevaldige Leiv Simcha on Bereishis 19:17 (in Parashas Vayeira) that makes the malach’s urgent directive to Lot in that pasuk extremely relevant to us today. The angel commands him: “Don’t look behind you and don’t stand still . . . ; escape to the mountain lest you be swept away.” The Leiv Simcha stresses that such is every person’s duty—to look straightforwardly toward the future, eschewing the guilt and “hang-ups” of the past which would weigh him down and make further progress in his spiritual life impossible, thus destroying him. Just look at the lashon of the Leiv Simcha:
2. I am indebted to my dear friend Rabbi Shimon Hildeshaim (n”y) for drawing my attention to this source.
“The allusion here is to every man, for we constantly say to him: ‘Escape for your life from the yetzer hara.’ Moreover, in whatever situation he finds himself, [we tell him:] ‘Don’t look back upon the past that was not good, for the yetzer hara desires this in order to bring a person to despair.
“‘And don’t stand still’: [This means] that a person shouldn’t remain stuck in his place but should instead ‘escape to the mountain lest you be swept away.’
“One could also say, ‘Don’t look behind you’—that [a person] should not look [back] upon his past—but instead at what is destined to come from him. [For example, from Lot] came forth Dovid Hamelech, alav hashalom.” (The translation is mine.)
What a marvelous three-part plan for becoming a “straight arrow”!
As for Lag BaOmer, how does it fit into this curriculum of self-improvement?
In past years, as I wended my way on Lag BaOmer up to the kever of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai at Meiron, I would pass an archery station, of all things! Of course, this should not come as a surprise, for the keshes (bow) of the archer’s apparatus is evocative of the keshes, the sign of the rainbow sent by Hashem to assure mankind that never again would He destroy the entire world by flood. Although merely a footnote to the marvelous Lag BaOmer celebration in the courtyard adjoining the Rashbi’s tomb, the simple act of shooting the proffered makeshift bow-and-arrow set at that site (for a nominal sum, of course!) brought me to the realization that just as an arrow is indeed a “forward-seeking” missile propelled by a person’s own koach gavra, so too do the excitement and recommitment to Torah values at such a place, and at such a time, have the encapsulated energy to propel me forward toward the perfection of my own avodas Hashem.
Such being the case, Lag BaOmer provides us with the quintessential opportunity to recalibrate our metaphorical “bowsights” and take aim at a future bright with possibilities for even greater accomplishments in Torah, avodah, and gemilus chassadim.
Let us then take up our arrow-filled quivers and our bows—the precious skills and talents the Basheffer has imbued within each one of us—and rededicate ourselves once again to our task of becoming “straight arrows” in His service.
For when push comes to shove, on Lag BaOmer we are, in reality, all toxophilites!
Questions or comments? Please send these to me at email@example.com.
Thanks so much, dear archers—oops, I mean “readers”!