Once a year, children and youth all over Israel collect any piece of wood they can lay their hands on and pile them up into huge heaps, which they set on fire on Lag Ba’omer night, the 33rd day of the omer count, which begins on the first day of Passover and ends on Shavuot. On that day, tens of thousands of people flock 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 wisdom of truth, also known as “the wisdom of Kabbalah.”
Lag Ba’omer is not regarded among the most fundamental festivals in Judaism, but like all Jewish festive days, it marks a profound point in our evolution as a nation and in the spiritual development of each and every one of us.
Lag Ba’omer in a Nutshell
Some 20 centuries ago, precisely at this time of the year, between Passover and Shavuot, Rabbi Akiva was teaching his 24,000 students. But according to the Talmud (Yevamot 62b), because these students did not follow Rabbi Akiva’s most fundamental law, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” they all died in a plague that struck them. Only five students remained 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 tenet—Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, chief redactor and editor of the Mishnah, and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi), author of The Book of Zohar.
Hidden in a Cave
In the period following the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Roman Empire (circa 132–136 CE), Rashbi was among the most prominent dissidents against the Roman rule in the Land of Israel. The Roman emperor, Hadrian, sent men in search of Rashbi to find and execute him.
According to legend, Rashbi and his son, Rabbi Elazar, fled to the Galilee where they hid in a cave for 13 years eating only carobs from a nearby tree and drinking the water of a nearby spring. During that time, they delved into the wisdom of the hidden, the wisdom of Kabbalah, and revealed the secrets of creation. Their efforts granted them the understanding of nature’s deepest levels and the understanding of the underlying unity at the basis of existence.
After 13 years, Rashbi heard about the death of Emperor Hadrian and came out of the cave. He gathered eight more students, in addition to his son, and taught them the secrets of Torah he had revealed. With his students, Rashbi went into another cave, and with their help he wrote The Book of Zohar, which is an interpretation of the Pentateuch, parts of the Prophets and the Writings (Hagiographa), and is the seminal book in the wisdom of Kabbalah.
The Book of Zohar describes the natural relationships that exist among all people. Contrary to popular belief, it does not talk about mystical creatures and esoteric powers, but rather writes about us—the process we go through as we develop our spirituality through our relations with other people.
Through his insinuations and intimations, 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.”
These brothers and friends that The Zohar mentions are people just like you and me, who have decided to connect for one and only purpose: to attain that underlying unity at the basis of existence that we mentioned earlier. By acknowledging their mutual hatred and subsequent exertion to rise above it and unite, they connect to that force of unity and establish such profound love among them, such true brotherly love, that even The Zohar fails to describe and simply refers to it as “a burning flame of love” or “the light of The Zohar.”
The Connection between ‘The Zohar’ and Lag BaOmer
Lag Ba’omer, the 33rd day of the omer count is the day when Rashbi passed away. It is also the day when the wisdom of Kabbalah was given to the world through the sealing of The Book of Zohar.
The tradition to light fires on Lag Ba’omer symbolizes the great light that appeared in our dark world when The Zohar was signed, sealed, and delivered to humanity—a light that can establish among us connections of love.
A Light at the End of the Tunnel
The darkness of the deadlock that our world has fallen into over the last decades stems from our unrestrained egoism. This is the exact same ailment that consumed Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students. Just as the Temple was ruined and the students of Rabbi Akiva died only because of unfounded hatred, today’s alienation and atmosphere of animosity in society are bound to wreak havoc in the world in general, and on Israel in particular.
The way out of the labyrinth requires that we use the same method of connection and unity that our ancestors used 20 centuries ago. If we implement it among us and connect above the internal rejection we feel toward each other, 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”).
Establishing a Lasting Solution among Us
Today, it is becoming clear that our society requires a fundamental, long-lasting, and sustainable solution to the problems we face. The great rule of the Torah, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is within our power to perform, 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, and now we must take that step and begin to march on a new path: the path of unity, connection, and brotherhood.
Lag Ba’omer symbolizes 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.”
Reprinted with author’s permission from The Jerusalem Post