Lag Ba’Omer is one of the most spiritual days on the Jewish calendar – though it’s celebrated primarily in physical ways. Situated on the calendar around the beginning of the northern summer, it’s about barbecues and bonfires; haircuts and weddings; and it’s hard to imagine that this day actually originated as the celebration of one of the most noted teachers and Kabbalists of our time, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.
A famed Sage from the Talmudic period; Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is purported to be the author of the Zohar; the essential Kabbalistic work commentating on the revealed Torah, or Bible, with the depths of meaning that translates to the hidden nature of the cosmos. On this day, crowds gather in Israel to the mountaintop where Rabbi Shimon is buried and celebrate the ascension of his soul to the next world; by fusing with his holy energy to reach heights within themselves.
Rabbi Shimon’s pursuits into the secrets of the Torah are filled with stories of awe and wonder, no less than the tale of how he and his son Rabbi Eliezer survived for over a decade living in a cave in Israel’s north, subsisting on water and carob, as they plumbed the secrets of the Torah before exiting the cave, only to retreat once again after they struggled to integrate the learnings of the Kabbalah with their view of physical mundanity (Rabbi Shimon’s gaze physically burst a farmer going about mundane tasks into flames…)
On this day, too, we celebrate another event that happened not long before Rabbi Shimon lived, when we learn of a plague that visited the students of another famed sage of the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva, who were so fixated on interpreting the words of their teacher “Love Your Fellow As Yourself” that they turned the argument into an all-out war; resulting in a plague of death and destruction before it miraculously stopped on this date, the 33rd day of the Omer.
Rabbi Akiva is known for his scholarly expertise, attained after only embarking on Torah study at the late age of 40. Formerly a shepherd, he’d been staring at water dripping on a rock before realizing that if the simple element of water can make an indentation on a harsh rock after patience and perseverance; so could he study Torah even at his late age. And so he became the greatest Sage; plumbing the depths of Torah to the extent that he would elucidate on the meanings of the crowns atop the letters in the scroll. Brilliant, right?
So on this day that celebrates brotherly love and ascension; of the heights of Torah fused with the basic act of loving another, it’s time to explore what we learn from these Sages and the historic legends that surround them.
It’s so easy to ascend on a spiritual path and then condescend to others not there with us; or to look at those who seem to be ahead of us and mock their efforts. It’s so easy to spout the book learning without wondering how we do it in our own lives, and it’s so hard to bring heaven to earth and lift earth up to heaven.
And that’s what I learned, this year, on Lag Baomer as I remembered the ancient tale of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son Elazar, locking themselves away from the physical world so they could study in a cave for twelve odd years, then burning a man immersed in physical labor with the power of his gaze. They couldn’t integrate.
Of Rabbi Akiva; learning the most important thing he’d ever learn by observing the natural pattern of water, dripping and carving a hole into a rock; and then going off to study in the books.
We can get so consumed by study of the books, we forget that one of the primary places to learn from is within nature; the same source of Divinity where the books get their knowledge, and the same place where we need to live and go back to, infused with Divine wisdom.
Yet we need both – Rabbi Akiva had to go and study; and Rabbi Shimon had to lock himself in a cave; but they had to get out in order to implement their teachings.
For all his metaphysical interpretations of how the crowns on the Hebrew letters of the Torah symbolize esoteric meanings, Rabbi Akiva’s own students were incapable of understanding that their varied interpretations of the commandment to Love Another As Yourself meant respecting the opinion of another; even if you Love them so much you want to see them following your path, because you know it’s true.
That Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, with his years of pondering the deepest secrets of the universe struggled to ground himself on exiting the holiest place, so much so that he burned with his physical gaze a simple farmer doing his daily work.
We learn from everything, even nature –that’s what Rabbi Akiva showed us. And we need to go to the books, too – that’s why they spent their time in Yeshivahs, in caves, studying and exploring.
But once we come out, it’s time to integrate, and that’s what both Sages teach us through their stories: That the greatest of book learning must translate to embodiment and application; that the highest heights must be integrated with physical reality in order we make it work.
So on Lag Ba’Omer, as we follow the map of the 7 Sefirot fused with one another to reach 49 unique permutations of divine and human attributes, we infuse Hod with Hod – humility with splendor; vulnerability with gratitude; acknowledgement with complete and utter surrender.
We let the light in; but make sure it suffuses us completely so we can stay who we are – not taking over in dominance; not hiding meekly without visibility. We learn to reach to the heights, yet stay grounded:
To integrate as we move, to create as we explore; to descend as we ascend; to maintain balance and fusion throughout.
And on Lag Ba’Omer, we don’t have work so hard at it: The energy of the day does it for us. The nature of 33; the 3 of Divinity; Self; and the Other; the 3 of God, the Torah; and the People; the trinity of unity between metaphysical, physical and the bond that ties it all together is what helps us get there.
You don’t need to be a Kabbalist on a mountaintop; or a simple Shepherd who can’t read the Alef – Bet: But you can be a farmer living in Love and Light; a scholar teaching the masses to live in Love; and you can fuse our two worlds together.
So we reveal within what’s concealed; and conceal within what’s revealed; as we continue to dance this dance and walk this walk; bringing heaven down to earth and lifting the mundane up to the heavenly realms.