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Bring on the Bonfire! Lag Ba'omer is almost here!

05/13/2022 01:17:51 PM


Rishe Groner

Many of us have been avidly following the ritual Counting of the Omer, which takes place every evening for 49 days, between Passover that just passed, and Shavuot which is to come. Spanning the time period it took the ancient Israelites to get from Egypt to Mount Sinai, where they received the Torah, it is a time of personal growth as we think about all the ways that we need to shake off that little bit of slavery and get ready for receiving revelation.

A little more than halfway, we get to the point called Lag Ba'omer. Lag, the Hebrew letters of Lamed and Gimel, make up the numerical value of the number 33, the day we celebrate.

And it’s interesting, really, that on a day where we celebrate the space between redemption and revelation, we also commemorate the lives of two great Sages, teachers of Jewish law and mysticism that have shown for us what that liminal space might look like through their writings and teachings.

Rabbi Akiva, a rabbinic legend who began his Torah studies at the age of forty through optimism and persistence, was known for the teaching “Love your fellow as yourself”. And yet his very own students could not quite agree with how to interpret that statement, and all 24,000 of them perished in a devastating plague, which ended on this day. Rabbi Akiva was the eternal optimist, and his remaining six students included the great mystic Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, whose passing is commemorated on this day. The Talmud describes him spending years buried up to his neck in sand, hiding in a cave with his son R’ Eliezer, as they hid from Roman oppression against Jewish learning. On his first departure from the cave, he and his son witnessed a laborer going about his daily work, and with their almost entirely mystical eyes, they were unable to process the experience of daily life. Their gaze burned him up alive. Their next sojourn in the cave was about integration - creating a space for revelation to exist in life and in the world.

The two rabbis are paragons in the mystic quest. Rabbi Akiva is described as one of the four who entered the Pardes, the “Orchard” of Divine mystery and delight, and was able to “enter in peace and leave in peace”. (His friends weren’t so lucky). Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is the hero of the Zohar, one of the fundamental texts of Jewish mysticism. These rabbis were not only about the meditative ecstatic elements of spiritual practice - but through their life’s journeys, they learned to integrate with the world they inhabited as teachers and exemplars for us today.

So how does that relate to what we do on Lag BaOmer - bonfires! We light fires, we celebrate with dancing and singing, we go out into the woods and hike, and as we will be doing in our very special Masa event on Thursday afternoon - we practice archery with our bows and arrows. While the bow-and-arrow custom originated from the period of Roman oppression, when people hiked in the woods with their hunting tools and hid out to study Torah with the “cover excuse” of hunting; the bonfires were established later, with every mountaintop and hilltop in Israel lit up in celebration of the holy Rashbi on his anniversary of passing, known as a “Hillulah!” celebration.

Fire is a substance that needs to be grounded by fuel - by the oil, the wicks, the wood and the kindling. It is also nourished by air - an ethereal substance that cannot be seen, but is needed to allow the flames to grow to their potential instead of smouldering in silence. And yet, the flames always rise high, leaping and dancing in the eternal quest to unite with their mystical source.

The Torah we study, similarly, requires grounding, fuel, nourishment and aspiration. It must begin with the work we do from the ground up, learning our Hebrew letters (as Akiva did, going to kindergarten at age forty!) and ensuring financial support and sustenance for those who teach us Torah. We need to add fuel to our fire, to remain tethered to this world and see how we can utilize and share the Torah we have with the world. Our bodies are the wicks that join us to the flames of God above, and as we put into action the Torah that we study through acts of goodness and kindness, through the embodied rituals of the Mitzvot, we light them on fire and rise up above. 

Lag Ba'omer is a pivotal moment in our journey to revelation! It’s a moment to be in gratitude for the many Torah learning opportunities we have here at BHA, and think about what we’d like to see grow in our studies in future, as we gear up to the Receiving of the Torah on Shavuot. It’s a moment to be out in nature, in the woods and with the fire, together with the elements.

And it’s our moment to integrate, that point between redemption and revelation.

Sat, April 1 2023 10 Nisan 5783