Lag B’Omer – What’s it all About?
Introduction – Lag B’Omer, 18 Iyar – Chai
Seven weeks, forty nine days –the days of counting the Omer provide us with a bridge, a bridge from slavery to freedom, from Pesach to Sinai …a bridge not only for our ancestors, but a bridge that remains intact for us to travel today. I recently came across a phrase which captured my thoughts…as we travel this bridge and count these days, it is important that it not be just a rote count. We need to bring meaning to the count and “count from the inside out.”
Day 33 of the forty-nine day count is called Lag B’Omer. Although it is not one of the specific feasts of HaShem, it has become a day of significance in the Jewish faith and there is much that we can glean from learning more about its history and relevance as it applies not only to the past, but also to the present and the future. The holiday, Lag B’Omer, gets its name from the number 33 which in Hebrew is spelled lamed, gimmel and pronounced lag.
These 49 days of counting the omer are referred to in Leviticus 23:16. These days are not only days in which we remember having being released from Egyptian bondage at Passover, but have also traditionally been seen as a time of joy for they are days of anticipation, of preparation, of going “to” something. In Jewish tradition, however, there was a significant event that happened 2000 years ago that led to these days of joy becoming days of mourning.
From the Traditions –Two Stories
The first story concerns Rabbi Akiva. As the story goes, before he became a rabbi, Akiva was an illiterate shepherd boy who could not even recite the Hebrew alphabet. One day he was walking by a stream and discovered something very unusual and paused to take a closer look…it was a rock in the stream with a hole bored straight through it. As he puzzled over this phenomenon, he suddenly came to the realization as to how this had happened…the endless day by day dripping of water from the stream onto the rock had bored a hole in it.
This sight was an “aha” moment, a “spark” of insight, an epiphany for young Akiva. Wow, he must have thought…if this rock which is hard can be penetrated by water, then surely the Torah (written on hard tablets of stone) could penetrate his mind if he set out to make it happen! And that he did. After 24 years of study, he became one of the most renowned rabbis in Jewish history.
During this period of study he gathered 24,000 students and taught them…many became rabbis. Yet tragically, during this period of counting the omer, there was a plague that lasted 33 days and killed all of his students. Yet Rabbi Akiva did not despair and give up…he found additional students and continued to teach them.
The day the plague stopped was the 33rd day of the count…Lag B’Omer…so it came to be considered a festival day, a day of rejoicing on the traditional Jewish calendar. And it is not by accident of course, that this day of rejoicing always falls on 18 Iyar. The number 18 is a very special number for it is connected to chai which in Hebrew means life!!!
The second story concerns one of the most renowned rabbis in Judaism, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai who lived in the second century of the Common Era. He is best known as being the author of the mystical text of the Zohar known as the Kabbalah. On the day of his death, he instructed his disciples to remember him and to rejoice by marking the day as the date of “his joy!” This day was on the 33rd day of the omer count, Lag B’Omer, and has been celebrated as a day of great rejoicing! Yet a look back in history reveals a paradox that occurs on this very day that was set for rejoicing…a paradox as in much of life…a time to weep and a time to rejoice…s
A Lesson in Perseverance
Eighty years ago on this very day, Lag B’Omer, a period of genocide began in Europe which resulted in the murder of 6 million Jews, yet three years after the end of the Holocaust, the Jewish people rallied together, fought a war of independence and regained their G-D given homeland. The Nation of Israel was founded…and the sound of Am Yisrael Chai could be heard ‘round the world!’ The challenges have not ceased… but the Jewish people, Israel and the returning ones who love HaShem and Torah, continue to hold fast to their G-D and stand strong. Their numbers are increasing by leaps and bounds today as there is a great move towards t’shuvah, return.
Application for Us Today and Personal Reflections
It is traditional in Jewish circles around the world to light large bonfires on the eve of Lag B’Omer which begins this coming Wednesday evening, and to continue rejoicing the next day with picnics, walks in the park, and other joyous activities. For me personally, the large bonfires are reminiscent of the awesome event that took place at Sinai when HaShem in all His Glory manifested Himself, veiled in clouds and thick darkness and fire…“burning from the heart of heaven” (Deuteronomy 4:11-12). It was here that He proclaimed His “Aish Da’at,” His Fire Law, the Ten Words, those burning words as UIWU teacher Ross Nichols refers to them in his classes on The Ten Words… the words which came straight from the mouth of the Creator…like sparks emanating from the fire, we must allow them to go through us, to penetrate our very being…to its very essence, its very core!
In the poignant words of Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl, “what is to give light must endure burning”… As followers of HaShem and Torah we must delve deeply into ourselves to discover and uncover these sparks within Torah and within ourselves that often times become clouded over by our own preconceived ideas and our misconceptions. Like sparks, hidden beneath the surface waiting to ignite, they must be released in order for us to grow and find true meaning in life. HaShem has placed a spark within each of us…it is His gift to us. Our gift back to Him is how we utilize that spark…and how we in turn share it with others and make it grow!
These sparks can be ignited in every word of Torah that we study, every prayer that we utter, every word that we speak, every good deed that we accomplish, every interaction with each person in whom we come in contact…for in all these things we can rekindle this special G-D given gift and develop what I call a G-D Consciousness in all that we do…and with it, spread the sparks and the light of Torah that emanate from it!
Setting the Soul on Fire
In the Torah portion, Behalothecha, HaShem instructs Moshe in Numbers 8:2 to tell Aaron that whenever he would light the lamps of the Menorah, he should hold the fire to the wick until it burned steadily on its own.
Rebbe Nachman teaches that spiritually, this means that when we “light the flame” of our own soul or the soul of another person, we should not just deliver some quick inspiration and move on, but rather remain close by so as to nurture the flame until it becomes steady and self-reliant. (Likutei Sichot, vol. 2, p. 316–317).
In other words, don’t just be an ember, be a flame, a torch! Be a lamplighter! Reach down deep within your inner being in your Torah study. As the Rebbe taught, “Don’t just turn the pages, let the pages turn you! “ Carry this out in your prayers and in your interactions with others. Discover that spark that the Creator placed in your soul when He created you…and share it! Share your spark for when you do, you will be sharing the light of HaShem… and together, we can all be lamplighters and spread His Light to the whole world as He intended…for if we do, that light will light up the darkness and be the biggest bonfire ever!
“Arise, shine, for your light has come, for the Glory (the Kivod) of HaShem is risen upon you. For behold darkness shall cover the earth and gross darkness the peoples, but HaShem shall rise upon you and His glory shall be seen upon you.” (Isaiah 60:1)
Happy Lag B’Omer as we continue our count all the way up to Sinai and discover more of those hidden sparks beneath the surface on our way!