I wish more people knew about Lag B’Omer here in the exile. In Israel, more than 150,000 people camp out on Mount Meron for an all-night Lag B’Omer party called a “hillula.” As you wind your way up the mountain there are bonfires in every direction. Glass bottles of oil are hurled into the fires for an explosive effect.
At any moment you can get swallowed up by a group of Hasidim singing, dancing and jumping up and down. The heart of the celebration is a massive bonfire on top of the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the great second century sage and miracle-man who is credited with writing the Zohar.
The Zohar teaches that when Rabbi Shimon chose to leave this world, he invited his closest students into his home and revealed to them the deepest secrets of the universe. It is said that his house was so bright with the fire of Torah that no one standing outside could even get close.
That night, Rabbi Shimon instructed his disciples to celebrate his yahrtzeit (anniversery of death) on the 18th of Iyar as a “day of joy.” Instead of sitting at home alone with a candle in the dark, on Lag B’Omer one should go outside to light a bonfire, to sing, dance and eat with friends. Why celebrate the day of his death? It is taught that when a person dies, all of his deeds, teachings, and life’s work achieve a culminating perfection in such a way that they can have an even greater impact on our lives. When someone really close to us dies, it feels weird to think about him and picture him in our minds because … Where is he now? His essence is no longer confined to a body so somehow it feels like he is both everywhere and nowhere at the same time. This is the great mystery of God, life and death.
On Lag B’Omer, we celebrate the Jewish mystical teachings of Kabbalah that were revealed to Rabbi Shimon and secretly handed down for thousands of years. Now, these teachings are more available for study than ever before. You don’t have to camp out on a mountain in Israel to celebrate Lag B’Omer. If you are mystically inclined (or just like making s’mores), don’t get stuck inside with a candle in the dark. One starry spring night, go outside to sing and laugh with friends around a campfire. Watch with wonder as sparks rise up to meet the stars, and voices rise up to meet the Great Mystery.
Happy Lag B’Omer!
AARON PHILMUS is the rabbi of Temple Torat Yisrael in East Greenwich.