On Saturday, May 21st, we will be camping out at the Makom behind TNS for Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of counting from Passover to Shavuot. While this tradition started as a mourning ritual, it has become a pilgrimage event in Israel and a cultural moment for many Jews in the diaspora. Let’s take a moment to explain, deconstruct and reconstruct our notion of the day.
The Talmud (Yevamot) mentions a plague that fell on the students of Rabbi Akiva during the Roman era. This may be a reference to the Bar Kochba revolt or simply a time of mourning for Jews after the destruction of the Temple. The plague was miraculously lifted on the 33rd day of the omer, so weddings and celebrations were allowed on that day. Later, a mystical tradition linked Shimon Bar Yochai’s death to the 33rd day of the omer and his skill as an archer and scholar are celebrated on this day to commemorate his passion and learning.
This day marks multiple layers of history, Theology and culture. 33 days of 49 mark a pivot towards revelation. With a little more than two weeks before Shavuot, the festival allows us to sit under the stars and before the bonfire and ask how far we have come since Passover. As a marker of a personal journey we must face what spring has sprung and our role in changing the course of our own destiny; revelation looks different when we prepare ourselves from the first moment of Passover. Will we admit to the limits of our ego, our shells readily accepting the new normal, our inability to count up towards a moment of radical amazement? Or will we just count the 33rd day like any other day, week or month, just another variant on a theme of decline, a failure of imagination. Or, like Shimon Bar Yochai, will we burst through with new life, ancient connections and cosmic meanings that burn with intensity! I know what I am counting on…
Bar Yochai was almost lethal in his wisdom and power with stories about his looks that could literally kill. It took time for him to recalibrate his passion towards the world. We too are in a moment of intensity, after a long period of isolation we are reemerging. Last year several students were killed at Mount Meron in Israel celebrating this day, crushed by the passion of those committed to Torah without regard for safety or crowd control. We may find ourselves staring at the bonfire with that same intensity, passion and fire; but we must learn to share and moderate that passion into a commitment for love of just Torah, Israel and humanity. If our celebrations become a war cry, we are no better than the Israelites worshiping molten bull.
Rabbi Micah Hyman
Rabbi Micah Hyman has returned to SLO county after five years around California. Rabbi Hyman (or Micah) serves as the Executive Director of SLO HIllel at Cal Poly, and teaches about material culture and spiritual life. He has served pulpits in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Paris. Rabbi Hyman has also been an innovator in experiential education, serving the Jewish Museum in New York, the Spertus Institute in Chicago, and ANU: The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv. He enjoys SLO living in all its Nature and Culture, smoking lox, on the water, and hiking with his sons Nathan (17) and Theo (14).