Most of our Jewish holidays seem largely comprised of historical narratives, Rabbinic additions and bizarre twists to engage the kids. It’s not that we are unaware of the origin and potential evolution of ritual and traditions, it’s just that we don’t seem to care. Sometimes, you have to wonder: What on earth are we celebrating and do we even care anymore about its historical significance?
Take upcoming Lag B’omer, a weird rest stop of Jewish festivity on the route from Passover to Shavuot. Like all weird rest stops (think bizarre collection of Elvis paraphernalia enroute from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv), Lag B’omer has an eclectic compilation of things Jews do. Some Jews visit the tomb of the “historic” Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in Meron. Some Jews cut the hair of their three year olds, some trade liquid for blessings of fertility. Even more light bonfires and even more have no idea this holiday is even happening.
Who’s to say that Lag B’omer is no less weird than waving a palm branch or spilling 10 drops of perfectly good wine? Lots of Jewish holidays celebrate less than ethical, pristine records of human behavior. But the two narratives that make up Lag B’omer are both so troubling, when I went to teach them this week in school, each made me pause and wonder, which one is crazier?
The actual mention of the date, the 33rd day of the Omer, appears in the Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 62B and recounts the story of Rabbi Akiba’s disciples who are afflicted by a plague (croup, in case you were wondering) because they did not respect one another. Look, I wish I could bring down a plague when I witness the acts of human cruelty that my students (both children and adult alike) inflict on one another. But I have a hard time teaching this text. How can I look at a room full of adults or children and say with a straight and honest face, God sometimes plagues people if they don’t behave. And when they finally do behave, God rewards them. In the world in which we live, most people know others who have received “the plague” for no obvious reason and when we hear this story, we inevitably begin to wonder, why doesn’t God plague those who act unfairly and then we go down the road to the Holocaust. And educationally and philosophically, once you go down the road to the Holocaust, it’s hard to come back and have a different conversation.
So what conversation should we be having on Lag B’omer? Perhaps the second narrative will shed some light. Traditionally, another great Rabbi is associated with Lag B’omer, the aforementioned Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a disciple of Rabbi Akiba. Jewish legend says, before he died on Lag B’omer, the Rashbi expounded the entire Zohar, a mystical, foundational text of the Kabbalah in a blaze of light that lasted longer than a normal day should. Historically, we light bonfires for him.
I have a problem lighting a bonfire for the Rashbi. To put it mildly, the Rashbi was a fundamentalist. He was so fanatical about Jewish observance that upon emerging from a cave where he had hidden from the Romans for 12 years, he and his son shot fire out of their eyes and burned a regular guy who was just farming his field. Even a heavenly voice told Rashbi he was out of line and sent him back to the cave.
Who is this hero of Lag B’omer? Who is this hero who revealed mystical teachings that seem to deny legitimacy of the everyday world (unless the everyday world conforms to your personal worldview)? How do we teach American Jewish kids about a Jewish tradition that seems at odds with our modern liberal values of what it means to live in the world?
There are probably many rewarding answers to this question as day schools and synagogues and Jewish institutions across the country and world teach Lag B’omer this week to their children and communities. I’m not sure of any one correct response. One could emphasize the cure rather than the disease, meaning the teachings of Rabbi Akiba: to love others as you would yourself. We can be the cause to end the “plagues” of our society by caring for one another. When we work together and respect each other, there are perhaps few grand social challenges we will be unable to defeat.
We can also learn from the story of the Rashbi, how he did go back into the cave (like a divinely sanctioned time out) to think about what it means to participate in the modern world. At the end of the story, the Rashbi sees a Jew running to keep Shabbat and I’m pretty sure the direct translation of the Aramaic for what follows is, “then he could chill out.” For Rashbi, the passionate flame of Jewish tradition burned deeply inside him and he had to learn how to control the way he shared that passion with others. There’s a lesson there in the trials of pluralism and how Jews can learn to treat other Jews and other humans with even more respect and honor than they originally could have mustered, whether we practice the way they practice, whether we learn the way they learn or live the way they live. That’s a message worth lighting a bonfire for.