Driving through Israel on a packed bus heading for Meron on Lag B’Omer. Along the way I see small fires lit everywhere, the radio talks about the holiday, the police are directing the public transportation system to bring a million Jews to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
Many, however, do not know what this celebration is all about. Why do we put so much emphasis on one great rabbi? Why do we make fires all over the country and Jewish world? Why do we go up on mass to Meron, while Jerusalem is emptied?
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, Rashbi, was a rebel. He rebelled against the Romans, and repudiated their culture. He saw nothing positive about the Roman physical and cultural occupation and was vocal and active against them. The Romans, ever vigilant, closed in on Rashbi and he was forced to flee. His flight was marked by a prolonged period of hiding, and while in a cave, Rashi and his son began writing down the Kabbalah, Jewish esoteric wisdom.
The Romans won. They put down the uprising led by Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Shimon. They killed millions of Jews and exiled millions to Rome, selling them as slaves. They destroyed the Temple and sacked Jerusalem.
Judaism, now bereft of land and Temple, with millions dead and dispossessed, seemed to be on the brink of utter destruction.
But Rashbi and his colleagues put into place a system of surviving the exile. For the next 15 centuries, Judaism would become portable and just as Rashbi went into hiding, so did the Kabbalah, the internal life spirit of Judaism. For fifteen-hundred years did the Kabbala hide, passed secretly amongst the sages. This transmission kept the Kabbala alive through the persecution and the darkness of the exile.
But around 1550 CE a man came to the land of Israel who saw that the era of the exile had come to an end and that the spirit of the Kabbala could now be resurrected. The man was the Ari HaKadosh, Rabbi Yitchak Luria, and from the holy city of Tzfat, he called on the Jewish people to do two things, to return to the land of Israel and to study the Kabbala – the two things the Romans had taken away from the Jewish people.
The Ari began teaching the Zohar, the Kabbalistic legacy of Rashbi, and he instituted Lag B’Omer, the day that marks the passing of Rashbi as a day of celebration, celebrating the victory of Rabbi Shimon’s war against the Romans 1500 years later. The Holy Ari saw that victory was at hand — the Jews will return to the land and the true Torah will be studied once again.
Indeed, the victory of the Jewish idea is celebrated on Lag B’Omer. It neatly fits between Israeli Independence Day and Yom Yerushalayim. These three days together all have the same spirit which drives them:
* the liberation of Jewish peoplehood,
* the return to the land, and
* the reemergence of authentic Jewish culture which the Romans sought to suppress.
Our fire burns bright in the night, it shall not be extinguished. They sought to extinguish our flame in Rome as in Auschwitz. But we persevered. On Lag B’Omer we celebrate the victory, and we honor the great Jewish fighters who fought for liberation and lost, who hid away our the precious cargo of our holy Torah, who passed it hidden through generations, and who pined away for the great day when we could once again live on our land as proud Jews.
That great day has come. Chag Sameach!