Lag B’Omer

 Tonight is Lag B’Omer. 

Short of being aware of the minor holiday called Lag B’Omer, and marking the occasion as some form of Jewish “Guy Fawkes” that is barely commemorated, there is an immensely powerful relevance to this occasion well worth contemplating at this juncture of Jewish history.

By all terms of logic, Lag B’Omer should be a mournful occasion. Bar Kochba lead his uprising against the Romans some 52 years after the destruction of the second Temple.  He was initially so successful that Rabbi Akiva was mistakenly prepared to ordain him the Messiah.  Although Jerusalem was held for some three years, the attempted conquest through to the days of Betar was an ultimate failure.  When Emperor Hadrian responded the rebellion ended on Tisha B’Av.  Bar Kochba died along with 580,000 others, and Rabbi Akiva amongst other scholars was tortured to death.

Rabbi Akiva had been a supporter of the rebellion.  The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Akiva had 24,000 students, and that they all died between Pesach and Shavuot.  The cause of death however is not directly attributed to the Bar Kochba rebellion, but is rather philosophically expressed as a plague because of a lack of personal respect displayed by the students. 

On Lag B’Omer the plague ended and it is for this that we celebrate.  Jewish destiny had been delayed and bruised for a near period of 2000 years.  However the vision was delayed, not destroyed.

Rabbi Beryl Wein, one of the world’s leading Rabbinic historians writes as follows:

“Lag B’Omer stands out starkly as commemorating a day when Jews stopped dying. The death of millions of Jews throughout our history is so regular and common – an unfortunate occurrence – that we must somehow take note of a day when this dying stopped. To my knowledge there is no such comparable day of commemoration in any other faith.” 

Indeed it is a very powerful idea which emphasises the critical importance of Jewish unity and respect for divergent ideas within our tradition.  There are many philosophic differences, but we are one people and Lag B’Omer reminds us of this. 

The means of understanding Lag B’Omer in contemporary terms may well also be hidden within the text of the Pesach Haggadah.  There is a commentary that suggests the famous scene where we recount the four Rabbis studying in Bnei Brak may allude to the historically significant moment of the Bar Kochba revolt. 

Certainly the inclusion of this parable into the Haggadah initially seems out of place in the context of deliverance from Egypt.  We ask four questions, and respond by moving ahead some 1,500 years to the times of the Sanhedrin Rabbinic court.  To find the connection we need to consider that this era was in the midst of the darkest stage of Roman oppression.  The Rabbi’s may well have lost track of time due to some serious ideological decisions they had to make concerning their support of a proposed rebellion.

It is little wonder that in each year of recent times Lag B’Omer has found an increased recognition and following.  This year we see even more parallels between ourselves and the days of Rabbi Akiva and Bar Kochba, all linking back to the lessons of freedom that we glean from recounting the Egyptian exodus.  We see evil empires falling, and great political uncertainty in many places.  All the while the Jewish people are again extended the same opportunity that arose in the days of Bar Kochba, that is to re-establish an autonomous nation built on unique Jewish values. 

The failure of the Bar Kochba revolt was a damning consequence of the inability of the Jewish people to respect their differences, share a common cause, and to accept the historical opportunity that was set before them.  No less are the differences expressed today within Israel, religious divisions that can be seen everywhere from the streets of the markets to the halls of the governing Coalition. 

Rabbi Akiva is attributed with the ethic of “love your neighbour as yourself”.  It was this great scholar who at the ripe age of forty commenced his quest for Jewish study and unity.  It is his example and teaching that can pave the way for proper interpersonal relationships.  Though we sometimes seem headed to repeat of the disaster of disunity, if we are unable to uncover Rabbi Akiva’s teaching within the Haggadah, our sense of national invulnerability will prevail.

If indeed the Rabbinical disagreement in the Haggadah was an allegorical debate on whether or not to participate in the Bar Kochba rebellion, the essence of the argument is uncovered by the phrase “all the days of your life”.  As further expounded by the text of the Haggadah itself, it is not enough to merely wait for redemption, rather we must work to hasten an era of peaceful self determination.  The disagreement between Rabbi Akiva and Ben Zoma was whether to apply an active or passive approach towards the impending Bar Kochba rebellion. 

This is the lesson for Lag B’Omer, and the link between Pesach and Shavuot.  It is all very well obtaining freedom and independence, but we have to know how to apply this both in a civil manner, and within the bounds of Jewish tradition.  We cannot wait for such an environment to prevail.  We ourselves must make it happen.  Through the piercing words of Rabbi Hillel, If not now, when?

It is delightful to see so many events across Perth’s Shules, Zionist youth movements, educational institutions and community groups to mark Lag B’Omer.  A young member of our community today was talking in very enthusiastic terms about the significance of Lag B’Omer.  Even a few years ago this event was hardly so much as acknowledged in communal terms.  So too with all days of modern national significance – Yom Yerushaliem, Yom Haatzmaut, Yom Hazikaron, Yom Hashoa, and other contemporary Israel commemorations such as the Rabin Z’L yartziet, there is a far stronger consciousness and awareness.  It is encouraging that greater relevance is applied to such occasions.  By contrast, second day Yom Tov and other religious occasions are not as strongly identified with and risk being lost by a generation that sees their future in Israel.

Whether it is the flame of the fire, the mystic of the kabbalists, the historical bond, the national connection, or just the social occasion, there are a lot of people in Perth attracted to Lag B’Omer events today and tomorrow.  I see this very much as part of the strong Religious Zionist revival that is entrenched into the culture of a large contingent of Perth’s Jewish youth.  Long may it continue to grow, and long may the flame continue to rise.