Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Lag BaOmer: BBQs, Bonfires and Freedom

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks in Israel. Controversy over the state budget, premonitions of doom ahead of the Bibi – Obama meeting in Washington, and the 33rd (Lag) day of the Omer, which traditionally marks the Bar Kochba rebellion, the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (the Rashbi) and the end of the plague / war that caused the death of 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students.

Lag Ba’Omer is one of those festivals that really emphasizes the difference between Israel and the rest of the Jewish world. There it’s more or less a regular day. Here meanwhile it’s a pyromaniac and carnivore’s heaven, with bonfires and barbeques (literally) filling the Jerusalem skyline (apparently air pollution is five times larger than on any other day).

Yet despite the celebrations, this year I struggled with the significance of the three aspects this day traditionally marks. While I’m perfectly happy to celebrate the end of a plague (especially if I get to eat), the other two components struck me as strange.

Despite being a renowned scholar, Rabbi Shimon’s story is problematic. After fleeing from the Romans (in an episode which always reminds me of this scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian) and learning in a cave for twelve years, Rashbi was unable to interact with his fellow humans, burning one man to death with his eyes for engaging in the ‘trivial’ matter of farming. A Heavenly voice ultimately demands he returns to his cave and stops ‘destroying God’s world.’

The rebellion meanwhile – inspired by messianic drive which ignored Roman strength and power – ended in disaster, with half a million Jews murdered and the loss of sovereignty for nearly 2000 years.

And while it didnt stop me eating two chickens, four sausages and an entrecote I did wonder whether there was more to Lag Ba'Omer than a zealous mystic and a failed rebellion…

Then I began to think about what these two stories signify – the inability to maintain the difficult balance between rights and realpolitik, between how the world should be and how it currently is.

And about the dangers of ignoring the latter in favor of the former.

And I remembered that Rashbi's story doesn’t end with the farmer’s immolation. It continues with his re-emergence from the cave a year later as a more complete, integrated, communally oriented Rabbi.

The Bar Kochba story meanwhile gets downplayed by the Rabbis of the Talmud, who understood the dangers of unrestrained messianism, of ignoring the geo-strategic situation in the name of nationalism.

Lag Ba’Omer falls sometime in the middle of the long walk to freedom we undertake between Pesach (freedom from slavery) and Shavuot (freedom to realize our potential). And maybe it comes to remind us of the learning steps required for mature freedom –that unwillingness to compromise on what we feel is rightfully ours can be catastrophic, that seeking to mould the world in our image can sometimes destroy it.

And I wonder – faced as we are with an unprecedented economic crisis and an international community unsympathetic to our territorial wishes – whether our elected leaders realize what it takes to preserve our newly acquired freedom.