Lag Ba’omer: Have fun and go deep
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D'VAR TORAH

Lag Ba’omer: Have fun and go deep

Rabbi Debra Orenstein

Congregation B’nai Israel, Emerson, Conservative

Many Jews think of Lag Ba’omer — the 33rd day between Passover and Shavuot — as a fun day. And rightly so! Lag Ba’omer is a time for picnics and outdoor games, especially archery. People build and gather around bonfires. I recall small fires dotting the long boardwalk area of Park Hamesilah in Jerusalem. Neighbors and strangers shared food and sang together, the smell of smoke potent in the air. If you have attended celebrations in Israel or the Pascack Valley, I hope that you, too, treasure happy memories of the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells.

Many Jewish parents cut the hair of their three-year-olds for the first time on Lag Ba’omer — and celebrate the new “big kid” status of those children. In the last century, Chabad Jews began a new joyous tradition: children’s parades with floats and music on Lag Ba’omer.

In Israel, people travel to Meron, the burial place of the second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who is said to have died on Lag Ba’omer. Despite the commemoration of a death and last year’s tragic crowd crush, the atmosphere in Meron is usually very festive. In fact, the anniversary of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s death is designated as a Yom Hillula, a day of celebration reserved for the yahrzeits of righteous, mystical leaders. Some folks come to Meron hoping for healing and miracles, based on the great rabbi’s intervention — and many people have reported blessings, good news, and joy during and after the pilgrimage. For all who attend, the goal is to celebrate the legacy of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

Lag Ba’omer is joyous in other ways, too. In general, the period between Passover and Shavuot, when we count the Omer, is a time of mourning, and many Jews therefore refrain from listening to music or cutting their hair. The Talmud explains that twelve thousand pairs of Rabbi Akiva’s students in the Land of Israel died between Passover and Shavuot because “they did not treat each other with respect” (Yevamot 62b). Post-Talmudic sages taught that the 33rd day of the Omer was an exception and reprieve. We lift the mourning practices on Lag Ba’omer because the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students — whether by plague or by war against the Romans — ceased then.

So, Lag Ba’omer celebrates life, health, and mutual respect. In the wake of the pandemic and in the midst of political rancor, this holiday has become more relevant than ever.

The themes of life and health are reinforced by the date when the 33rd day of the Omer falls: the 18th of the Hebrew month Iyar. 18 means “life,” and Iyar can be read as an acronym for the Hebrew words that conclude Exodus 15:26, rendered in English as: “I am Adonai, your Healer.”

In sum, Lag Ba’omer is intended to be happy and healing. It’s a respite from contempt, war, and plague. We don’t merely tolerate our neighbors, we respect them — and have fun with them, too.

But Lag Ba’omer isn’t just merry. It’s also deep. Inviting us to practice joy within a period of mourning, it models what we must do all the time: find relief and cause for celebration amid problems, oppression, and tragedies. If we are going to improve our political discourse, we will have to nurture and be nurtured by oases of civility in a desert of disrespect. To be happy and to choose life, we will need to carve out spaces and times that defy the prevailing culture.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, whose yahrzeit we celebrate, was one of our greatest mystics. A friendly game of archery represents the “bow” of protection created both by the rainbow in the time of Noah and by Rabbi Shimon in his day. Legend tells us that no rainbow appeared in the sky as long as Rabbi Shimon was alive, because his spiritual power was enough to protect the entire earth. What appears to be mere lighthearted fun — launching sticks with sharp ends or rubber suction cups — reminds us of the spiritual potential of each individual. One person — Shimon, Akiva, Zelensky, and maybe you — can safeguard a tradition, a nation, or even the whole world. Certainly, each person can tip the scales towards life, blessings, and mitzvot or toward death, curses, and sins.

Medieval mystics attributed one of the seven lower sefirot (divine emanations and qualities) to each week of the seven weeks of Omer, and one of those same seven emanations to each day of the week. The result is a unique pairing of divine qualities for each of the 49 days that we count. The 33rd day pairs Hod with Hod — and therefore holds a double dose of divine splendor. While the literal meaning of Hod is “splendor,” the mystical meanings are many and nuanced, including: acceptance, flexibility, submission, humility, receptivity, divine Light, and thanksgiving.

In the p’shat (plain sense) of the Bible, Hod conveys beauty, majesty, and, less commonly, vigor (e.g., Daniel 10:8). In the mystical tradition, Hod promotes seemingly opposite connotations: not the power that rules, but the power that submits to rule; not the elevated sovereign, but the humble, flexible, and appreciative subject; not that which lights and navigates a path, but that which must bend to avoid obstacles and discover light; not who and what is strong, but who and what accepts and compensates for weakness. The focus on Hod within Hod hints at the humility that undergirds true Splendor — and prevents it from becoming ostentation or dominance.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son hid from the Romans in a cave for 12 years, during which time they studied Torah with great intensity. Their splendor became so bright and their standards, so high, that people who engaged in regular, worldly concerns struck Rabbi Shimon as abandoning eternal life. In fact, when he and his son first emerged from the cave and looked around, the people they observed were immediately incinerated by their gaze (Talmud Shabbat 33b). Rabbi Shimon returned to the cave, and it took him an additional year there to calibrate his splendor so that it shone but did not burn. He came to accept temporal needs and realities and to respond more flexibly and humbly in the face of them.

The balance of humility and majesty within splendor was something that even this exceptional teacher had to learn — and we are learning still.

May your Lag Ba’omer be full of fun and meaning!

Rabbi Debra Orenstein (RabbiDebra.com), an ordinee of the Conservative movement, is spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson and author or editor of eight books, most recently No More Slaves: A Resource Guide for Engaging and Empowering Young Jews To Help End Human Trafficking by 2030.

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