A tiny city in Northern Israel, year-round population 928, is hosting for the next 24 hours the largest pilgrimage of Jews since our people’s Exodus from Egypt.
The city is Meron. It is home to the resting place of The Rashbi, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Wednesday night is Lag B’omer — the 33rd day of the Omer — The Rashbi’s Yahrzeit.
Since the 15th century, Jews have trekked to this hallowed spot on this holy date. Over the centuries, the Yahrzeit has been marked in muted fashion. For decades, though, the incredible modern-day phenomenon called Lag B’omer in Meron is well captured with this picture to your right.
Yes, those are all people.
Police estimate that this year, The Rashbi’s resting place will be visited by over 600,000 Jews. Nowhere, at any time in our history, has this number of Jews journeyed to one destination, at the same time, since we left Egypt.
To put this number into context. Were Christianity or Islam to see 5% of their followers (Jewish population worldwide, 14 million) travel in unison to the resting place of their respective leading scholar, 50,000,000 (fifty million) of their people would have to be part of this pilgrimage if it was to even remotely compare to what is currently happening, L’Havdil, at The Rashbi in Meron.
After dark, a regal torch was used to light a mountainous bonfire. The Rebbe of Boyan whose holy ancestry has kept this honor for generations, was honored with the lighting. Now underway, 24 hours of music, dancing, bonfires and words of Torah are being projected from speakers, screens and stages scattered throughout the area. Thousands of little 3-year-old boys are having their first haircut, their “upsherin,” at The Rashbi.
The giant flames bathe the stadium-size plaza in warm, brilliant light. Indeed, it serves as a huge Yahrzeit lamp. More symbolically, it represents the over-sized impact The Rashbi has had on this world. As in each recent year, a surreal yet palpable joyous energy has gripped the hundreds of thousands gathered there. They will dance with unbridled joy throughout the night and well into the daytime hours.
Frankly, this awesome reality – currently underway – deserves the global Jewish community’s attention.
From a purely practical perspective, it is true that The Rashbi was one of the leading Talmudic sages of all time. His holy Zohar is the pre-eminent work of Kabbalah. But he passed away some 2000 years ago!
Despite every justified reason to have long forgotten his Yahrzeit, our people, somehow, have held onto The Rashbi so tightly, it is as if Jewish life depended on it. And it does.
As was his wish, this date is celebrated, more powerfully now than ever before. More precisely, he asked that it be “like a wedding.” In Meron tonight, the largest wedding celebration in the world is underway.
The Zohar recounts the scene on the night of his passing, The Rashbi summoned his closest disciples to his home. Each, was one of the greatest Torah sages of the time. The home filled with such intense light that those assembled could not approach nor even look at Rabbi Shimon. In that fiery setting, his beyond angelic soul ascended, reuniting with The Infinite and Eternal One.
The immense light was Rabbi Shimon’s heavenly gifts that he had dutifully delivered to the world. His unmatched Talmudic leadership and his unprecedented revelation of Torah’s secrets were put on full display. Each year on Lag B’omer, that moment is re-enacted and it has grown to light up the entire world. This presence of G-dliness is impossible to relegate to history. It was, and continues to be, a genuinely living force. And as with all things living, it continues to grow.
Thousands of Lag B’omer celebrations will be held throughout the world on Thursday (May 23). A singular theme will unite them all; The Rashbi’s Yahrzeit wish of celebration. The Rashbi revealed the soul of Torah, its essence. Fittingly, he requested that we each reveal our own hidden dimension, our Divine soul. To do so, one must be proud, joyous and celebrate as a Jew.
Weddings celebrate a union of two souls. The wedding-like celebrations of Lag B’omer are the marriage and union of Jewry’s souls. Embodied and embedded in each Jew, yet forever and immovably one, as one as The A-lmighty Himself. This is the celebration of Lag B’omer and this is the reality that The Rashbi wished be brought to the world on this, his special day.
Jewry will gather in his honor from Meron to Honolulu. In Moscow, Paris, London and each state in the union. Thousands of Lag B’omer celebrations will be conducted by Chabad-Lubavitch in over 100 countries throughout the world. Undoubtedly, those gathered in his honor on this holy and auspicious date of Lag B’omer will receive a full measure of his blessings. Look up your local Chabad center and make sure to be part of a Lag Ba’omer festival tomorrow. The Rashbi will surely be there, will you?