|A series on the holidays, brought to you by The Deep Ecumenism Initiative|
by Rabbi Nadya Gross
My earliest memories of Lag Ba’Omer take me back to grade school in Israel. There was a grove of trees that we walked through to get to school. On that day, following the lead of the older kids, we all gathered fallen tree limbs as we returned home at the end of the school-day. We were contributing firewood for the very large bonfire that would burn in the open space in front of our apartment building. We also carried the carob pods that our teachers gave us as special treats for the holiday.
At night, the entire neighborhood would gather with small potatoes to roast on sticks (marshmallows were not yet known in Israel), radios would be tuned to the station playing ‘songs of the Land of Israel’ and there would be circle dancing and storytelling – tales of heroism and wedding memories. I found it fascinating that so many of our neighbors shared a wedding anniversary. Some of the older children had bows and arrows and shot into the air, to see whose would go higher and land farther away – the stuff of parents’ nightmares.
This was certainly the single largest gathering of the neighborhood in the year, a multi-generational event with something for everyone. Not to mention that I got to stay up later than usual, play in the dark, and feast on roasted potatoes (I gave the carob fruit away).
Lag Ba’Omer is the thirty-third day of the Omer. The Hebrew letter lamed has the numerical value of 30 and the letter gimel is 3, thus the name.
According to the Talmud, God caused a terrible plague, killing twenty-four thousand of Rabbi Akiva’s students during the weeks following Pesach. As the story goes, the students were not treating one another with respect, and so they were punished. The plague and the deaths ended on the 33rd day; thus Lag Ba’Omer became a day of celebration. Traditionally, the Omer is a time of mourning for the lives lost, and weddings and other celebrations are prohibited. Only on Lag BaOmer is the ban lifted, which explains all the Spring weddings that occur on this day.
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was one of Rabbi Akiva’s most devoted students, who became a great teacher himself. This was the time of the Roman occupation; the study of Torah was forbidden, and these teachers devised ways of covering their tracks. It is told that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai would take his students into the forest with bows and arrows, pretending to go hunting while actually engaging in forbidden learning. This story, and others that tell of the Torah Sages’ defiance of the Roman decree, inspired the tales of modern-day heroism and the archery games that I witnessed around the bonfires in the square outside my home.
And what’s with that carob fruit? According to the legends, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son hid in a cave for 12 plus 1 years, to avoid the Roman governor’s death decree. During those years, they studied Torah and Kabbalah. Some say Bar Yochai authored the Zohar – one of the greatest Kabbalistic works. And, God caused a carob tree to grow in front of the cave, providing nourishment and camouflage, as well as a spring for water. The cave is in the town of Peki’in, in the northern part of Israel, not far from Tzfat. To this day, one can visit it and see the carob tree still growing there. Lag Ba’Omer is also Bar Yochai’s yahrzeit – the anniversary of his death. On his deathbed, it is said that he taught the mysteries to his students, and proclaimed the day of his death a hilulah – a celebration. The bonfires are in honor of the spiritual light that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai brought to the world.
Today, I am balancing the nostalgia I feel with other messages I am receiving for our time. We are living in a pandemic that seems to have no end in sight. We recently exceeded one million deaths in the U.S. alone, and we know that this number is far greater than it needed to be – because those in power did not respect the scientists, and seemingly continue to prefer to manipulate the minds of their followers with no respect for the continuing loss of life. Our tradition wants us to learn from the stories that have been passed down to us. What have we learned from the plague that decimated Rabbi Akiva’s students, and what are we learning from this pandemic? Will its end become a day of celebration in the future, with no reference to the hubris that engendered it?
What of the present-day occupation in that same region of the world? As we celebrate those who defied and fought against the Roman occupation as heroes, can we – just this day – open our hearts and minds to the Palestinians whose lives are deeply circumscribed by the occupation of their lands? When the tables are turned, why must the values be so radically different?
With these questions, I also find hope in the story of Peki’in. This town has existed since before the destruction of the Second Temple. It was there that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai fled, and found the cave in which to hide all those years. According to historic census references, this town has always been home to Muslims, Christians, Jews and Druze. At one time, they were equal in number, and even today, while it is predominantly Druze, there remain Muslims, Christians and a Jewish remnant. The synagogue there has pieces of the destroyed Temple in its walls, and the residents today are proud of the peaceful relations and good neighbor values that have become part of the DNA of the town. Perhaps Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s spiritual light has something to do with that?
Lag Ba’Omer falls on the fifth day in the fifth week of the Omer – Hod within Hod. Humility, reverence, ritual, splendor, gratitude infused with more of each. May we humbly receive the teachings of our past and gratefully allow them to guide our present steps. May we have the courage and wisdom to hold the light and shadow of past and present in balance. And may we always keep hope for the future.