Several years ago, I had occasion to arrive back in Israel from abroad on the night of Lag Ba’omer. As our flight approached Ben-Gurion Airport, an audible, “Wow!” went through the plane from everyone lucky enough to be seated at a window. As they looked down upon hundreds of small fires that lit up the landscape, it seemed as if the stars from the heavens had somehow descended to earth.
It was the Night of the Bonfires, an ancient tradition held on the 33rd night of counting the Omer (occurring tomorrow evening) that has been magnificently resurrected in our modern State.
Like our favorite holidays, this one also focuses on the younger generation.
As soon as Passover ends, roving bands of children, having “borrowed” a cart from the nearest supermarket, purloin every piece of wood that isn’t nailed down – and some that are. Planks, old furniture, tree branches, even discarded doors (in tribute, perhaps, to the authors of Light My Fire) are fair game for the flames. They find various places to store the combustible stuff – my basement included – and then on street corners, in backyards or on virtually every open space, they gather for this annual ritual of setting the town on fire (not, hopefully, to be taken literally).
Yet if you ask the kids – and most of the grown-ups as well – just exactly why they are waxing pyromaniacal, most will be stumped for an answer.
They will shrug their shoulders, scratch their heads, then merrily hold another marshmallow over the flames.
So let me try my hand at offering an insight into the mysterious meaning of this fiery festival.
Lag Ba’omer celebrates two primary historical events: The first is the cessation, on this day, of the plague which decimated the students of the great Rabbi Akiva, killing “12,000 pairs” of them. By tradition, the students died because they did not exhibit sufficient respect for one another (thus the unusual use of the word “pairs,” perhaps meaning study partners, rather than just citing the number 24,000).
The second is the yahrzeit or hillula of Rabbi Akiva’s prime surviving student, Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yohai. Known by his name’s acronym Rashbi, or simply Bar-Yohai, the first-century Tannaitic sage is credited with the authorship of the Zohar, the chief text of Kabbala, the foundational work of Jewish mystical thought.
Bar-Yohai died on Lag Ba’omer and is quoted as telling his many students, gathered around his deathbed: “Now, on the day of my death, it is my desire to reveal heavenly secrets... today will not go to its place like any other, for this entire day stands within my domain.” Daylight was miraculously extended as the Rashbi revealed numerous concepts of Kabbala; when he finally concluded his teaching, he died.
And so arose the custom for hundreds of thousands of the faithful to gather on Lag Ba’omer at his Galilean tomb in Meron, and for people throughout the country to light fires, symbolizing the mystic’s revelation of light and learning.
But there is a deeper message at work here, one that goes far beyond the events of 2,000 years ago, which has clear consequences for our present-day populace and problems.
The Talmud relates a fascinating story about Bar-Yohai: Sought by the Romans for having slandered them, Rashbi and his son Eliezer run away and hide in a cave for 12 years. A carob tree and a spring of water miraculously nourish them; they take off their clothes, so as to preserve them, and sit in sand up to their necks, blissfully studying Torah all day long.
Then one day, Elijah the Prophet comes to the cave and informs them that the Roman emperor has died, and so it is now safe for them to leave their subterranean sanctuary. Stepping forth into the world outside, they see men plowing their fields, and angrily declare: “These people forsake the eternal life of Torah study, and instead embrace mundane, temporary life!” Whatever they look at is burnt up in fire. God then orders Rashbi and his son back into the cave for one more year.
When they emerge again, late on a Friday afternoon, they see a man running, carrying two bundles of myrtle. “What are those for?” they ask. “To light on the Shabbat,” says the man, “one is for zachor (remembering Shabbat), and one is for shamor (observing Shabbat)!” Rashbi is visibly impressed by the piety of this simple working man. He says to his son, “See how precious the commandments are to Israel,” and his spirit is finally put at ease.
We are told – as a way of indicating the righteousness of Bar-Yohai – that in Rashbi’s generation, no rainbow was ever seen. The rabbis explain that the rainbow is a post-Flood sign of God’s eternal promise to protect us. But when a generation has a tzadik, a righteous man like Rashbi, then he is sufficient to protect the nation, and no rainbow is needed.
Yet Rashbi, for all his greatness and grasp of the infinite, needed to learn that not everyone in this world can be a tzadik who learns Torah in a cave all day; most people need to work and lead normal lives. “Regular” people may seem to others to have somewhat of a mundane existence, but they have their share of redeeming qualities, too. And when they perform even the simplest mitzva – such as kindling Shabbat candles and bringing light into their homes – they are precious in God’s sight.
Rashbi’s eyes are illuminated when he comes to the realization that humanity itself is a kind of rainbow; that we come in all the colors of the spectrum and each human being has a distinctive spark of the Divine. The fact that all of Israel, from scholar to schoolchild to soldier to salesman, observes the tradition of lighting fires on Lag Ba’omer – although they may not even know why! – is a symbol of our collective holiness.
In fact, Lag Ba’omer may actually be a tikun, a remedy, for the long-ago actions of Rabbi Akiva’s students: They did not respect each other enough; but by our joining together in one giant blaze of glory, we shine a beacon of unity into the Heavens. That unity can dispel any plague, even – or especially – the one that seeks to denigrate “the other” and cast aspersions on those who don’t think or believe exactly as we do.
Perhaps the greatest secret which Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yohai ultimately wished to share with his people is that the answer to our crisis of community need not be found in some faraway place over the rainbow; it may very well be around a bonfire, accompanied by singing, dancing and non-judgmental joy, right in our own backyard.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; firstname.lastname@example.org, www.rabbistewartweiss.com