Lag B’Omer in 2020 will not be like any other year. This year will be something special. The light of Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai won’t be shining on countless maduras (bonfires) in Jewish communities throughout the world, nor on the hundreds of thousands who would normally flock to Meron to be with the Tzadik on his yartzeit.
This year, Rebbe Shimon’s light can shine in a more personal, intimate way…
Some kid in my building is learning how to play the shepherd’s flute. Over the past few days around lunch time he or she gets into a decent rendition of V’Amartem Ko Lechoi.
And every time I hear it, my heart aches.
For almost two decades I’ve been zoche to travel to Meron on Lag B’Omer along with hundreds of thousands of Jews from different backgrounds and walks of life. This year, in light of the continued response to the coronavirus, Lag B’Omer in Meron has been closed off to the general public. Bonfires, even private ones in the community, are likewise banned.
For the past two weeks I’ve been wondering how we are supposed to celebrate Lag B’Omer without the children gathering wood for the bonfires and the resulting woodpiles that dot the land… without the dancing and singing that accompany the lighting of these fires… and without Meron… without the throng of guests seeking brochas and yeshuas… without the chai rotel… the upsherins… the litany of communal bonfires attended by thousands… the minhagim spanning generations… the achdus (unity)?
Lag B’Omer is not a “minor holiday” as some believe. There are very big things brought down regarding the power of this day and the effect it can have on those who celebrate it.
(I made a separate article about the minhagim, stories and segulas of Lag B’Omer. You can read it here.)
So, what does Hashem want from us this year?
One of the apparently intended results to the whole parsha of covid-19, is that Hashem wants us to serve Him without all the usual distractions we have at our disposal. It’s just Him and us.
Over the past couple of months, each one of us has been given the opportunity to reconnect to and re-prioritize the things that are important in life– both in a physical and spiritual sense.
When it comes to Lag B’Omer, the truth is that several Askenazi and even Chassidish communities do not have the custom to light a madura outdoors, nor make it a point to travel to Meron.
Some also point to a possuk in Yeshaya (57:19):
שָׁלוֹם שָׁלוֹם לָרָחוֹק וְלַקָּרוֹב, אָמַר ד׳–וּרְפָאתִיו
peace, peace to those far and those near, says Hashem, and I will heal him.
The word ורפאתיו (I will heal him) is the same gematria as שמעון בר יוחאי (Shimon Bar Yochai). The explanation is that even those who can’t be in Meron for Lag B’Omer can still have their prayers answered from wherever they are (as the possuk says “to those far and those near”), and receive a yeshua in the merit of Rashbi. (Hilula D’Rashbi)
Those who can not go to Meron are encouraged to learn Rebbe Shimon’s teachings or something about his life. (Taamei Haminhagim pg 272)
An Important Lesson from the Life of Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai
It’s become a minhag in Israel among many communities for the children to go out and build the wood piles for the Lag B’Omer madura. Usually, these structures are put together with whatever wood the children can get their hands on- discarded scraps, broken furniture, left over pallets. What was once garbage, now suddenly is worth its weight in gold.
These fires also burn on the ground.
Both of these qualities are significant. Here’s why…
Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai was all about emes- the truth and nothing but the truth. But it wasn’t until he could come to shalom (peace) that he really began to fulfill his potential in the world:
The gemara (Shabbos 33b, 34a) brings the following account:
Rebbe Yehuda and Rebbe Yose and Rebbe Shimon [bar Yohai] were sitting, and Yehuda ben Gerim was sitting beside them.
R. Yehuda opened and said: How pleasant are the acts of this nation: They established markets! They established bathhouses! They established bridges!
R. Yose was silent.
R. Shimon answered and said, “Everything they established, they established only for their own needs: They established markets – to place zonos there; bathhouses – to pamper themselves; bridges – to take tolls.”
Yehuda ben Gerim went and retold their words, and it became known to the [Roman] government. They said: “Yehuda who extolled – let him be extolled. Yose who was silent – let him be exiled to Sepphoris. Shimon who disparaged – let him be killed.”
Rebbe Shimon eventually ran away with his son Rebbe Elazar and hid in a cave for twelve years. There, they immersed themselves in Torah study until Eliyahu HaNovi appeared to tell them they could leave:
Elijah came to the opening of the cave, saying:
“Who will inform Bar Yohai that the emperor died and the decree is annulled?”
But, Rebbe Shimon and his son had not fully learned the lesson that had put them into the cave in the first place:
They saw men plowing and sowing. R. Shimon said, “They forsake eternal life (olam) and busy themselves with temporal life?!”
Every place they turned their eyes to – was immediately burned.
A heavenly voice (bat kol) came out and said to them: “Did you go out to destroy my world? Return to your cave!”
What Rebbi Shimon had to learn was that all the physicality of this world is really there to serve spirituality– even the Roman markets, bathhouses, and bridges, and even man’s mundane, worldly pursuits.
Twelve months later, Rebbe Shimon and his son left the cave once again:
When the eve of the Sabbath arrived, they saw a certain old man who was holding two bunches of myrtle running at twilight.
They said to him, “Why do you need these?”
He said to them, “To honor the Sabbath.”
[They said] “Would not one suffice for you?”
He said, “One for “Remember [the Sabbath]” (Exodus 20:8) and one for “Observe [the Sabbath]” (Deut. 5:12).
R. Shimon said to him (his son), “See how dear is a commandment to Israel.”
In the cave, Rebbe Shimon learned to look at the world in even the most physical and coarse places and still find Hashem and His Goodness within. For the physicality itself is really hidden, latent spirituality.
By coming to this realization, Rashbi was thus zoche to reveal Hashem in every aspect of creation (the good and the bad) through the mystical teachings contained in the Zohar. He came to a place of shalom between him, those around him and His Creator, and thereby became the conduit of shalom into the world. I’ve heard it said that when someone learns the Zohar properly, all questions fall away.
This is an important lesson.
We all have areas within ourselves and our lives that may be bitter, coarse and unpleasant. We are all surrounded by others who also possess their own flaws and faults. We may at times be on the ground, overwhelmed with feelings of depression, anger, anxiety or fear.
These experiences have a purpose: to eventually expose the light of Hashem that they conceal.
In other words, they aren’t meant to be ignored or thrown away; they are a source of light in potential.
We are put in this world to use every single part of our being for the service of Hashem- the areas where we are connected to HaShem together with the areas where we are still struggling to achieve that connection. If we leave parts of ourselves or our experiences out by ignoring them, denying that they exist, or by actively refusing to work on them, then we simultaneously cut ourselves off from the very light that we are meant to shine into the world.
It’s a segula on Lag B’Omer to yearn that our eyes be opened to this truth. Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the Frierdiker Chabad Rebbe brings the following possuk:
גַּל–עֵינַי וְאַבִּיטָה— נִפְלָאוֹת, מִתּוֹרָתֶךָ
Uncover my eyes and I shall look at hidden things from Your Torah
He notes that word “גַּל” is composed of the same letters as “Lag.” Lag B’Omer has the power to reveal the truth and the specific light concealed within ourselves, those around us, and the world at large.
Interestingly, the neshema is compared to a flame, as it says, “The soul of man is a candle of God” (Proverbs 20:27). Just as a flame continually moves upwards, toward Heaven, so too the soul struggles to reconnect with its Creator. Just as the flame’s essential purpose is to dispel the darkness and enable us to see the way, so too the soul shows the body in what direction to go, how to act, and what its true mission in life is.
The real madura of Lag B’Omer is thus really within us– our inner yearning to see the good within ourselves, others and the world, to shine this light out, dispel the darkness and enable us to see the way.
May we all be zoche to receive the light of Rebbe Shimon and Lag B’Omer!