Yonatan Neril
Founder and director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development

Would Rabbi Shimon Light a Lag Baomer Bonfire?

Tonight is the largest Jewish spiritual gathering of the year, with hundreds of thousands of Jews converging on Meron in northern Israel, and millions elsewhere gathering to light bonfires. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, whose passing Jews commemorate on the day of Lag Baomer, might be considered a great ecologist. Yet widespread bonfire practice has turned this day into the one with the most wood burning by Jews. Let’s look at the bonfires in light of Rabbi Shimon’s ecological legacy and the era of climate change.

During their thirteen years in a cave, Rabbi Shimon and his son Elazar may have set a Guinness record for the smallest ecological footprint. They drank spring water and ate carobs from the carob tree. Rabbi Shimon’s students are described as ‘standing cedar trees’ in the famous song sung in his memory.

On the holiday of Tu Bishvat, there is a custom to plant trees. How does our Tu Bishvat consciousness inform our Lag Baomer practices? Does it impact the size of the bonfire we make, or whether we make one at all? If so, which type of wood (or plastic or Styrofoam) would we use? Is anyone willing to cut down the tree they planted on a previous Tu Bishvat to burn in their Lag Baomer bonfire?

These questions are timely. This year’s Lag Baomer occurs during a record May heatwave, with Jerusalem reaching 100 degrees F and Eilat 115 F. High temperatures drastically increase the risk of fires spreading. For Jewish Israelis to light tens of thousands of fires at this time seems absurd, since some, perhaps lit by teenagers and even children, invariably lose control and (God forbid) burn forests and buildings.

The Jerusalem Post reported that during a previous Lag Baomer, “air pollution jumped in many places, according to the Israeli Environmental Protection Ministry. Ashkelon saw the biggest jump with levels 6.9 times higher than normal.” Higher air pollution contributes to diseases such as lung cancer and asthma and is the leading cause of premature death globally.

According to a Jewish teaching, a spiritual fire surrounded Rabbi Shimon bar Yochaithe day he passed away, Lag Baomer (the 33rd day in the Omer count). That’s the basis for lighting a bonfire– to mimic his spiritual light and fire. Rabbi Shimon helped reveal the inner Torah of Jewish spirituality, so Lag B’Omer is like the giving of the inner Torah, which prepares us for the giving of the Revealed, Written Torah on Shavuot, Pentecost.

According to the Kabbalistic understanding of counting the Omer, Lag Baomer corresponds to the spiritual emanation of Hod of Hod, or humility of humility. Rabbi Daniel Kohn taught that Hod of Hod is the first creative instinct of G-d to bring the world to manifestation. Hod is the commitment to the creative force that is animating creation. To look at the world from the eyes of Hod is to desire that the whole world – every bee and bug, shrubs and trees, Scotsman and Ghanaian – come to their full manifestation.

In the giant fire of burning trees cut down and heaped high by people, do we see the power of man or the light of God? Does the enormous fire deliver a physical thrill, like a roller coaster, or a spiritual experience? What does a humble bonfire look like?

How would Rabbi Shimon feel about how people treat Meron on his yahrzeit (anniversary of his passing) today, especially using hundreds of thousands of disposable plastic cups at his gravesite on Lag Baomer?

Another aspect of Lag Baomer in the age of the climate crisis relates to our global carbon budget. Scientists have made it clear that there is a limited amount of carbon we can burn in the coming decades without locking in catastrophic global heating and turning the Holy Land into a super-heated hothouse. So to burn wood that releases vast quantities of carbon dioxide  is to accelerate the global climate crisis.

Can we practice our religion in a way that sets an example in addressing the climate emergency? Religious practices in many religions traditionally emphasize large bonfires , i.e. the Swedish Christian practice of spring bonfires on Valborg and Lohri, the Hindu bonfire festival, to name just two. How can religious practitioners in our time urge restraint in order to respond to our ecological emergency?

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught about a group of people who were travelling in a boat. One of them took a drill and began to drill a hole beneath themself. The person’s companions said: “Why are you doing this?” The person replied: “Why are you concerned? Am I not drilling under my own place?” They replied: “But you will flood the boat for all of us!”

Imagine being a passenger on that boat, and one person, without concern for you or others, jeopardizes your safety and security. The person drilling a hole may have valid reasons for doing so. Perhaps they want to drop a fishing line because they are hungry. Maybe they want to use the water to cool their feet or wash. Maybe the boat is on a lake and they just want water to drink.

But no matter how rational the reason, drilling a hole in a boat to fulfill the desires of one individual jeopardizes everyone’s safety. Rabbi Shimon’s story warns us of the destructive power of letting our selfish desires overtake all other considerations. It’s not about whatever floats your boat.

Furthermore, everyone on the boat needs to work together to ensure this type of behavior doesn’t continue. The person drilling the hole is dangerous, but it’s equally dangerous to be the kind of person who doesn’t know or care what happens. If the boat sinks, it is the fault of the driller, as well as the others who don’t convince the person to stop. That’s why we need all hands on deck.

On the communal ship we call earth, billions of people are drilling holes. Some dig bigger holes than others. We might measure it by one’s ecological or carbon footprint, i.e. the amount of resources each person consumes, and the amount of climate-change-causing carbon dioxide (e.g. from wood burning) they put in the atmosphere. If we dig too many holes and disrupt the climate too much—then we, and the next generation, will pay a steep price for our excessive consumption. This is both a theological and a scientific principle.

Indeed, we are living in times that our ancestors only  could dream about for thousands of years, as Rabbi Avraham Sutton taught. The next stage in human evolution is a consciousness revolution. It can now spread around the world just like a viral YouTube video. It could be downright messianic.

Call me an apocaloptimist. I believe we are headed for a period of time when our spiritual awareness and physical living on this planet will be elevated. We will live at a higher level of soul awareness. This period’s dominant features will be spirituality, altruism toward other people, and care for our common home and all species. My hope and prayer this Lag Baomer is that we will make a spiritual shift in how we relate to the fires, and expand our level of concern beyond our desire for personal spiritual gratification. Our wisdom, humility, and foresight can enable our children to inherit a livable planet. That is worth changing for.

Here are a few practical suggestions:

  • Rabbi Shimon and his son Elazar sustained themselves for thirteen years on carobs alone, so some have the custom of eating carobs on Lag Ba’omer. Why not celebrate by planting a carob tree or making a carob shake?!
  • If you want to see a bonfire, go to one of the 40 official Jerusalem Municipality bonfires. The Municipality called on residents to come together in communal bonfires, instead of lighting them on their own.
  • Learn some of Rabbi Shimon’s spiritual teachings.
  • Meditate on the light inside of you.
  • Manifest a spiritually aware, sustainable, thriving life.
About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Neril founded and directs the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development. He completed an M.A. and B.A. from Stanford University with a focus on global environmental issues, and received rabbinical ordination in Israel. He is the lead author and general editor of two publications on Jewish environmental ethics, speaks on faith and ecology, and was a Dorot and PresenTense Fellow. He lives with his wife, Shana, and two children in Jerusalem.
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