Rabbi Akiva's students grew apart; the bonfires of Lag Ba'omer bring us together.
By YONATAN SREDNI
I have a hard time getting fired up over Lag Ba'omer. Pardon that awful pun, but if you are not an elementary school kid who has been collecting (stealing?) planks of wood since Pessah vacation for a bonfire, this quasi-holiday seems to be nothing more than a nuisance. That reminds me, I had better go close the windows so the smoke doesn't get in.
Actually, Lag Ba'omer is not such a hot item this year. Pope Benedict XVI and '80s rock band Depeche Mode seem to have garnered much more media attention.
To be fair, Lag Ba'omer comes every year, but the pope comes less often (his predecessor Pope John Paul II came in 2000). Depeche Mode is here for the first time (after canceling a scheduled appearance in 2006 due to the Second Lebanon War), and 50,000 fans came to their concert in Ramat Gan to show their support.
Since the press will be pretty busy tailing Depeche Mode and the pope this week, Lag Ba'omer will certainly get the short end of the media's (burned) stick.
But isn't Lag Ba'omer a minor holiday? Heck, if it wasn't for the festivities at the grave site of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in Meron, the haircuts, the weddings, the bonfires and the fact that kids are off school for a day, we might dismiss Lag Ba'omer altogether.
WE HAVE TWO historic events connected to Lag Ba'omer. Firstly, the Talmud (Yevamot 62b) states that during the time of Rabbi Akiva 24,000 of his students died from a divinely sent plague during the counting of the omer. The Talmud then goes on to say that this was because they did not show proper respect to one another, befitting their level; they begrudged each other the spiritual levels attained by their comrades. Jews celebrate Lag Ba'Omer, the 33rd day of the count, as the traditional day that this plague ended.
Secondly, kabbalistic tradition recounts that the great sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai died on Lag Ba'omer and that the sun miraculously refused to set until he expired, hence the hassidic tradition of candles and bonfires. Customs of mourning held during the period from Pessah to Shavuot are suspended or stopped altogether on Lag Ba'omer.
But what does Lag Ba'omer mean today? Perhaps the two ideas, the mourning of Rabbi Akiva's students and the lighting of bonfires for Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, are connected.
Think of a bonfire. It provides warmth. It can heat food. People gather around it and sing. Everyone is attracted to a fire. A fire brings people together.
Perhaps the idea of Lag Ba'omer and the lighting of bonfires is just that, to bring people together. Rabbi Akiva's students grew apart; the bonfires of Lag Ba'omer bring us together.
The pope is no doubt here on a goodwill mission and I wish him well. He certainly has it in his power to bring people together, and let's hope he succeeds. Even Depeche Mode managed to bring people (50,000 of them) together for at least one night.
Perhaps Depeche Mode expressed the idea behind Lag Ba'omer's togetherness best in their hit song, "People Are People":
People are people
So why should it be
You and I should get along so awfully
I can't understand
What makes a man
hate another man
Help me understand.
I think I'll go open my window now.
The writer has an MA in creative writing from Bar-Ilan University.
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