Will The Real Lag B'omer Please Stand Up

Thursday, 3 May, 2018 - 1:51 pm

Today is Lag B’omer, a day typically and traditionally celebrated outdoors. There are often bonfires and bows & arrows. Since the 1940s, the custom of Lag B’omer Parades has grown and expanded.

Lag B’omer marks the day that the plague killing 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva ceased. It also marks the day that one of his subsequent students, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, returned his soul to his Maker. On his deathbed, he instructed his disciples to mark his Yahrtzeit as a day of festivity - celebrating the teachings of Kabbala and the ascension of his soul on High.

A common modern misconception introduces a connection of Lag B’omer to another historical event – the Bar Kochba revolt in the second century. This is was made even more popular with the rise of secular Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel, when an association with historical Jewish warriors was sought.

While both Rabbi Akiva and his student Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai lived during that period, and Rabbi Akiva was, initially, a fervent supporter of Bar Kochba, drawing a connection to Jewish war heroism is a blatant diversion from what Lag B’omer is all about.

Rabbi Akiva’s support for Bar Kochba was based on the supposition that this revolt was a physical expression of the spiritual rise of the Jewish people. He even presumed Bar Kochba to be Mashiach. That support came to an abrupt end after Bar Kochba declared that “we don’t need G-d on our side. As long as G-d doesn’t support the enemy we will be ok.” Rabbi Akiva realized that the revolt was entirely divorced of a spiritual context and was therefore doomed to failure.

This is the exact opposite of the theme of Lag B’omer. Both Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Shimon had reached the pinnacle of human spiritual achievement. They studied and taught under the most challenging of circumstances and yet, are responsible for bringing the vast body of the Oral Tradition to the Jewish people via the Talmud, Midrash and Zohar. Lag B’omer is about the powerful light of the inner teachings of the Torah. Lag B’omer is about discovering the powerful unity that Jews experience through Torah and Mitzvot. Lag B’omer is about an intensified devotion to Hashem and His purpose for our existence. Lag B’omer is about ascendancy of the spirit; the superiority of form over matter. Reducing it to a celebration of Jewish military heroics is akin to an arrow not only missing the bullseye, but missing the target altogether.

The bonfires are a symbol of the great light of Jewish mystical wisdom. The bow & arrow symbolize the righteousness of Rabbi Shimon and his followers. Jewish mystics and Chassidic masters have traditionally utilized the spiritual power of this day to perform many miracles. For the Chabad Rebbes, the blessings of Lag B’omer had a specific focus on the area of fertility. Many childless couples were blessed on this day and merited to have a child.

May we utilize this holy day properly and experience the spiritual strength it can give us!

Happy Lag B’omer and Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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