This Lag BaOmer eve, I reflect on how different this night is from all other Lag BaOmer nights, as so many things are different these days. You see, while Lag BaOmer is special all over the world, here in the Galilee, less than ten miles from Meron, things usually go to a different level. For at least a week before, and a few days after, there are enormous traffic jams as hundreds of thousands come to be near the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. The truth is, even in standard years, cars cannot get anywhere near there. Down the road from where I live, in Karmiel, a huge parking lot is created on an empty field, and buses run from there to Meron every five minutes, 24 hours a day, for about three days.
Personally, I never wanted to be anywhere near Meron on that day. In general, I hate huge crowds and pushing and shoving and standing for hours, craning my neck to maybe see something in the distance, with deafening music blaring. My family and friends know that at most weddings, I cannot tolerate more than about 15 minutes of dancing (though I was just fine at my children’s weddings, baruch Hashem). I much prefer to go to Peki’in to visit the cave that Rabbi Shimon and his son stayed in for 12 years, which besides being only three miles from my home, is much quieter and peaceful. The fact that I am a kohen and cannot go into the building in Meron really doesn’t enter into it – I would never be able to get that close anyway.
Nevertheless, last year Lonni prevailed over my curmudgeon nature, and at four a.m., we headed out to Meron for a vasikin davening when the crowds are far smaller. It was still pretty crazy – and I am confident that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience (Lonni’s contrary view notwithstanding).
This year, however, Hashem had other plans – for all of us. I sit here tonight, with the eerie quiet, and watch our little barbecue bonfire (which I hope will not get me arrested for violating the “no bonfires” decree). It is a very different Lag BaOmer, to say the least.
But as it turns out, it is different for me in another way, as well. In the University of Haifa tour guide course that I have been attending this past year, I have discovered many interesting and exciting things about our history, and many shocking ones as well. Most of the startling ones have to do with the way that non-Orthodox Jews view Judaism and Jewish history. This week, it was my turn to discover how secular Jews view Lag BaOmer.
As it turns out, after asking quite a few of my peers, most secular Jews know and care little or nothing about the huge party that the religious people have in Meron. They do not know much about the great disciple of Rabbi Akiva – Rav Shimon bar Yochai – or why that has any connection to Lag BaOmer. They don’t know anything of the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva dying during the period of the Omer.
However, they do know one thing. Lag BaOmer, they will tell you, commemorates a great Jewish hero, the disciple of Rabbi Akiva – Shimon Bar Kochba!
I had never heard of this in my entire life, but this is what is taught in the secular school system. Apparently, early Zionists redefined Lag BaOmer from a rabbinic-oriented celebration to a commemoration of the Bar Kochba revolt against the Roman Empire (132–135 CE). As Benjamin Lau wrote:
“This is how Lag BaOmer became a part of the Israeli-Zionist psyche during the first years of Zionism and Israel. A clear distinction became evident between Jews and Israelis in the way the day was celebrated: The religious Jews lit torches in Rashbi’s [Shimon bar Yochai’s] honor and sang songs about him, while young Israelis, sitting around an alternative bonfire, sang about a hero “whom the entire nation loved” and focused on the image of a powerful hero who galloped on a lion in his charges against the Romans.”
As part of the search for new national symbols of courageous, mighty warriors, unlike the “Galus Jew” of the past, the Zionist leadership held up Bar Kochba as a glorious symbol of Jewish pride. No matter that his revolt ended in a crushing, terrible defeat that cost at least hundreds of thousands of lives and was the final blow to any hope of Jewish sovereignty for thousands of years – he fought the great fight. He refused to accept the yoke of those who subjugated us. In fact, some historians say that the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who died were actually soldiers for Bar Kochba, who perished in the battle.
I had always wondered why, as a child growing up in Monsey, we played with bows and arrows on Lag BaOmer. We were told that it had something to do with the rainbow, but it did not make much sense to me. Secular Israelis will tell you that these commemorate the fighters of Bar Kochba, who used these as their main weapons.
Obviously, this version of Lag BaOmer is troubling for many reasons, which I will not go into in this limited article. But the fact remains that – at least here in Israel – we have two different versions of the Lag BaOmer story, one based around Rabbi Akiva’s student (Rabbi) Shimon bar Yochai, and the other around Rabbi Akiva’s protégé, Shimon Bar Kochba. And both of these powerful individuals symbolized an idealized – and opposite – attitude.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is famous for coming out of the cave and being critical of those who busy themselves with this-worldly, mundane activities, instead of dealing only with the holy and the sacred. Bar Kochba is notorious for saying to Hashem, “We will fight without Your help; just do not interfere (Yerushalmi Taanis 24a).” One looked only for Heavenly salvation. The other looked to human might to prevail.
Of course, while we are far, far closer to Rabbi Shimon’s views, the truth is that even Rabbi Shimon eventually softened his views somewhat, after his additional year in the cave. Of course, we have to look to Hashem for success in any endeavor. But for the overwhelming majority of us, we must also put in our best human efforts and look to Hashem to bless them.
I listened this week to a lecture by Netanel Ellinson, a secular Israeli thinker, who had a beautiful insight. The Gemara tells us that the disciples of Rabbi Akiva died during this period because they did not treat each other with respect. He suggested that this might have implications for us today. We have two schools of thought that claim that they are followers of Rabbi Akiva’s two most famous devotees. Today’s groups deeply disagree with each other, and each claims that they alone are the legitimate heirs of our Jewish Heritage. It behooves both groups, however, to learn from the past, and to treat each other with respect.
Speaking as a member of the Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s school of thought, it behooves me to respect the remarkable work, self-sacrifice, blood, sweat, and tears invested by the secular builders of this incredible State of Israel. That does not mean that I have to agree with them about many things, nor that I should not be exasperated – and even angry – about many of their excesses, as our tradition was with the excesses of Bar Kochba. But we can find a way to respect much of what they have done in their efforts to help the Jewish people and protect them. And the more that we do so, the more we can hope that they will respect our perspective as well, and appreciate the centrality of religion to the Jewish people and the fantastic contributions that the religious community has made to our national good in so many ways.
May the virtual fire of this Lag BaOmer warm Jewish hearts on both sides of the Jewish divide, help us respect each other, and learn to love each other, as Rabbi Akiva always taught. If we do so, we can look forward to laughing with Rabbi Akiva in the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash, bimheirah b’yameinu.
Rabbi Yehuda L Oppenheimer, formerly a rav at Young Israel of Forest Hills and in Oregon, now lives in Lavon, Israel, and seeks to promote Jewish unity and mutual appreciation among all sectors of our people. He blogs at www.libibamizrach.blogspot.com.