Has Israel Finally Learned the Disastrous Lesson of Lag Ba'omer?

Maybe this holiday is meant to be a reminder that unwillingness to compromise on what we feel is rightfully ours can be catastrophic.

Ilan Assayag

Lag Ba'omer is one of those festivals that reflect a difference between Israel and the rest of the Jewish world. In the Diaspora, it’s more or less a regular day. In Israel, meanwhile, it’s a pyromaniac and carnivore’s heaven, with smoke billowing from bonfires and barbeques filling the Jerusalem skyline, resulting in air pollution five times higher than on a regular day.

The day traditionally marks the Bar Kochba rebellion, the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (often referred to by another acronym, Rashbi) and the end of a plague that caused the death of 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students. Yet despite the celebrations, I often struggle with the significance of these three aspects of the day. While I’m perfectly happy to mark the end of a plague (especially if I get to eat), the other two components struck me as strange, even dangerous.

Despite being a renowned scholar, several parts of Rabbi Shimon’s story are problematic. As recounted in Tractate Shabbat, he denies any utility to Roman culture (in an episode which always reminds me of a famous scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian) before being forced to flee and ultimately finding shelter in a cave. For 12 years, Rashbi immerses himself in Torah study, yet when he leaves the cave, he is unable to interact with what he views as the trivial travail of his fellow humans, burning one farmer to death with his eyes. A heavenly voice demands he return to his cave in order to stop "destroying God’s world."

Not something we should try at home.

Many Israeli children grow up singing Levin Kipnis’ song about Bar Kochba, which goes “He was a hero, he called for liberty, the entire nation loved him.” But the rebellion itself ended in disaster, resulting in the total devastation of Judea, the death of half a million Jews and the execution of nearly all the leading rabbis of the generation. Perhaps it is unsurprising that when reminiscing about his childhood education Rav Benny Lau once quipped that he remembers learning about different aspects of the rebellion, but never its end.

In his book, "The Bar Kokhba Syndrome: Risk and Realism in International Politics," former head of IDF military intelligence and professor of International Relations and Middle East studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Yehoshafat Harkabi argues that the “rebellion stemmed from an unrealistic assessment of historical and political circumstances” and that to admire it – as many contemporary Israelis do – means admiring rebelliousness and heroism detached of responsibility for their consequences. Through the adoption of this “Bar Kochba syndrome” we “enmesh ourselves in the predicament of reverencing our people’s destruction and rejoicing in an act of national suicide.”

Once again, hardly something we should wish to celebrate or emulate.

Admittedly these thoughts never prevented me from devouring an eclectic mix of meat on Lag Ba'omer. But they did make me wonder whether there is more to this holiday than a zealous mystic and a failed, disastrous rebellion.

In this context, it’s critical to consider what these two stories signify, namely the inability to maintain the difficult balance between rights and realpolitik, between how the world should be and how it currently is. And crucially, how dangerous it is to ignore the latter in favor of the former.

Because ultimately, Rashbi's story does not end with the farmer’s immolation. It continues with his re-emergence from the cave a year later as a more complete, integrated, communally oriented leader. The Bar Kochba rebellion meanwhile is downplayed by the Talmudic rabbis, who understood the dangers of unrestrained messianism, of ignoring the geo-strategic situation in the name of unbridled nationalism.

Lag Ba’omer falls in the middle of the long walk to freedom we undertake between the festivals of Pesach, our freedom from slavery, and Shavuot, our freedom to realize our potential. And maybe the day is intended to remind us of the learning steps required for mature freedom, a reminder that unwillingness to compromise on what we feel is rightfully ours can be catastrophic, and that unrelentingly seeking to mold the world in our image can sometimes destroy it.

And faced as we are these days with coalitional negotiations, regional uncertainty and an international community increasingly unsympathetic to the new government’s likely territorial positions, I sincerely hope our newly elected leaders internalize what it takes to preserve our newly acquired freedom.