Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the omer, commemorates two events. The first is the interruption or end of the plague between Pesach and Shavuot that killed the students of Rabbi Akiva during the time of the Roman occupation of Israel. After the death of 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar, became one of the five students who then carried on Rabbi Akiva’s teachings. He later died on the same 33rd day of the omer.
These two personalities and these two aspects of Lag B’Omer are connected in many ways. It was Rabbi Akiva, alone among his colleagues, who entered the Pardes, a deep level of mystical meditation, in peace – and came out in peace. The mystical tradition that Rabbi Akiva transmitted was passed down to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and revealed in the Zohar.
The cardinal custom of Lag B’Omer is the bonfire. The fires of Lag B’Omer represent the light of the inner dimension of the Torah, the spiritual, mystical Jewish tradition handed down to our own day. This light represents the deepest longing of the soul to be close to God and to understand the depths of the Torah.
Rabbi Akiva was tortured to death for teaching Torah publicly by scraping off his skin with burning rakes. He took that fire and transformed it into sacrificing his life with a fiery love of God. As he prepared to die he told his students, who were forced to witness his torture, that he had always longed to fulfill the verse which commands us to love God with all our souls. He now prepared in great joy to fulfill that mitzvah. His ability to transform the fires of torture into the fire of love of God was carried on by his student Shimon Bar Yochai and infused in the incredible light emanating from the teachings contained in the holy Zohar.
Rabbi Akiva died with the last word of the Shema on his lips. It is customary to close ones eyes when saying the Shema. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach taught that sometimes to see clearly we need to close our eyes. The most penetrating sight is an inner sight, deeper than our eyes can see.
It asserts in the Zohar, the foundation text of Kabbalah, that Israel will be redeemed in the future through the merit of learning its secrets. In order to overcome the darkness all around us, on a personal, national and universal level, we need to go beyond the superficial learning and observance of Torah and reveal deeper and more spiritual levels that will bring light to ourselves and all those around us. Ultimately, we will understand that the battle raging in Israel will have to be won not only on the battlefield, but more importantly, the present confrontation, as it relates to politics, culture, religion and world views will also have to be won spiritually. And for the Jewish people the strength and wisdom to arise victorious will have to come from where it has always come – from the light, inspiration and power of our holy Torah. Lag B’Omer infuses us with the fiery passion to delve deeper and deeper into our Torah and tradition, till the light will dispel all evil and pave the way for the final redemption.
At the moment Rabbi Akiva transmuted the burning combs of hatred and torture into a fiery determination and love of God, it was transferred to his student, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who was also persecuted by the Roman authorities, but managed to escape to a secluded cave where he hid for twelve years. During those years the fire of Torah burned bright, unbeknownst to others, as he wrote the Zohar, the fundamental text of Kabbalah unto this day. His fire for Torah, received from his teacher, was transmuted into understanding the light of the inner dimension of the Torah.
After twelve years, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai left his cave ready to re-enter the world. According to the Talmud, upon seeing a farmer working his fields, a fire burst forth from him and “burnt up” the farmer, for he could not comprehend mundane pursuits of this world in comparison to the brilliant light of the Divine service of God. In response, God ordered him back to his cave until he could temper his passion, until he could use his own fire in a more productive way.
There is a concept in Chassidut, termed “descending in order to ascend,” where sometimes one needs to stumble or fall in order to subsequently rise to an even higher spiritual level. This is the nature of a test, where we struggle for the sake of ultimately reaching a new level of consciousness and being.
There is yet an even higher, more subtle concept termed “ascending in order to descend,” where one is careful not to get enamored with the “high” of an experience for its own sake, but always seeking at the very climax of the ascent to transform the experience and integrate it into our more normative reality. This is why of the four great Sages who entered the Pardes, the culminating apex of the mystical ascent of the soul, only Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and went out in peace; the others were in one way or another marred by what they saw and experienced. Rabbi Akiva came and went in peace only because he was focused on the return, even before the ascent.
God sent Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai back into the cave so he could now consciously integrate his twelve years of spiritual revelation in a manner that would benefit the world around him. The fire would continue to burn, but in a way others could grasp and share.
Upon leaving the cave, this time for good, Rabbi Shimon gathered around him once again his students and gave over to them this holy fire. On his death bed he assured his distraught students – who questioned how they would ever be able to continue with out him – that they should rejoice and not be saddened. The eternal flame of Torah given over to him by his teacher, Rabbi Akiva, in his recitation of the Shema, was now transmitted into the eternal teachings he was giving over to them.
It is described that at his passing, a great light filled the room. That light has been handed down from generation to generation and is symbolized in the bonfire of Lag B’Omer. The law of conservation of energy applies to the spiritual as well as the physical world. Spiritual longing and light is never destroyed, it is always transformed and passed on. It will be this light, represented by the bonfire of Lag B’Omer, that will ultimately reveal itself in the final redemption, when Israel will become “a light unto the nations.”