Every year there is the “Lag BaOmer craze,” when children and youth throughout the country collect any piece of wood they can lay their hands on, and not always wood that was meant to be trashed, and pile them up into huge mounds days before the festival. On Lag BaOmer night, the 33rd day of the omer count, which begins on the first day of Passover and ends in Shavuot, they set them all on fire.
Aside from the fires, on Lag BaOmer, tens of thousands of people perform a pilgrimage of sorts up to the grave of the author of The Book of Zohar, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, to pray and to celebrate the writing of this seminal book of the hidden wisdom, the wisdom of truth, also known as “the wisdom of Kabbalah.”
This may not be the most fundamental festival on the Jewish calendar, but like all Jewish festive days, Lag BaOmer marks a profound point in our evolution as a nation, and in our individual spiritual development.
In a Few Words
Around this time of the year, some 20 centuries ago, all but five of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students fell ill and died. According to the Talmud (Yevamot 62b), this happened to them because they did not follow Rabbi Akiva’s most fundamental law, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The five students who survived stayed healthy because they followed their teacher’s guidance and stuck to the principle of love of others.
Of these five students, two in particular passed on their teacher’s tenets: Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, chief redactor and editor of the Mishnah, and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi), author of The Book of Zohar.
Thirteen Years in Hiding
Rashbi lived and taught in the period following the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Roman Empire (circa 132–136 CE). He was among the most prominent dissidents against the Roman rule in the Land of Israel. The Roman emperor, Hadrian, sent men to find Rashbi and kill him.
According to legend, Rashbi and his son, Rabbi Elazar, hid in a cave in the Galilee for 13 years eating only carobs from a nearby tree and drinking water from a nearby spring. During that time, they delved into the wisdom of the hidden, the wisdom of Kabbalah, and revealed the secrets of creation. Through their efforts, they grasped nature’s deepest levels and perceived the underlying unity at the basis of existence.
After 13 years, Rashbi heard about the death of Emperor Hadrian and emerged from the cave. With eight more students, Rashbi and his son went into another cave in the Galilee, where he taught them the secrets of Torah he had revealed. With the help of his students, Rashbi wrote The Book of Zohar—an interpretation of the Pentateuch, parts of the Prophets and the Writings (Hagiographa), and the seminal book in the wisdom of Kabbalah.
Contrary to popular belief, The Book of Zohar does not talk about mystical creatures and esoteric powers, but rather describes the natural relationships that exist among all people. It writes about us—the process we go through as we develop our spirituality through our relations with other people.
Through stories and allegories, Rashbi explains how we should construct our relationships correctly through love of others, and how love of others will bring peace to the entire world. In the portion, Aharei Mot, the book writes, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is when brothers sit together. These are the friends as they sit together, at first, they seem like people at war, wishing to kill one another. Then, they return to being in brotherly love. Henceforth, you will also not part … and by your merit there will be peace in the world.”
The brothers and friends that The Zohar mentions are regular people, much like you and me, but they have connected around one goal: the attainment of that underlying unity at the basis of existence that we mentioned earlier. By acknowledging their mutual hatred, as the quote above describes, and through their subsequent exertions to rise above it and unite, Rashbi and his students connected to that force of unity and established among them profound brotherly love. Their unity was so intense that even The Zohar fails to describe it and simply refers to it as “a burning flame of love” or “the light of The Zohar.”
Why the Fire
The omer count begins on the first day of Passover, and Lag BaOmer happens on the 33rd day of the count. On that day, Rashbi passed away, which is why it is also the day when The Book of Zohar was sealed and the wisdom of Kabbalah was given to the world.
We light fires on Lag BaOmer to symbolize the great light that appeared in our world when The Zohar was signed and delivered to humanity—a light that can establish among us connections of love.
In the Labyrinth
In recent decades, our egos have driven our world to the brink of collapse. This is the exact same malady that consumed Rabbi Akiva’s students. Just as the Temple was ruined and the students died only because of unfounded hatred among them, today’s alienation and aggression in society are wreaking havoc the world over.
To find our way out of the labyrinth, we must use the method of connection and unity that our ancestors used 20 centuries ago. If we implement it and connect above our isolation and mutual distrust, we will light up the same great flame that burned before and the light of The Zohar will be revealed.
My teacher, Rav Baruch Shalom Ashlag (RABASH), wrote, “In each one there is a spark of love of others. However, the spark cannot ignite the light of love. Therefore, by bonding together, the sparks becomes a big flame” (The Writings of RABASH, vol. 2, “What Is the Degree One Should Achieve”).
Selfish, But Not Hopeless
Today, it is becoming clear that our society requires a fundamental and sustainable solution to the problems we face. We must establish among us the great rule of the Torah: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” However, this will happen only if we choose together to install it among us. We are indeed selfish to the core and our “inclination is evil from our youth,” as the Torah tells us. Yet, even a journey of a thousand miles begins with one small step. Now we must take that step and begin to march on a new path—toward unity, connection, and brotherhood.
Lag BaOmer celebrates the appearance of the immense light of unity in our world through The Book of Zohar. It is a great opportunity for us to begin this journey toward mutual responsibility, toward being “as one man with one heart,” toward being what the nation of Israel is all about—love of others—and toward sharing that light with the nations, just as we have been commanded to be, “a light unto nations.”
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