Burning Bright on Lag Ba'Omer

Tonight marks the day of Lag Ba'Omer. It is the 18th of Iyar, which is the 33rd day (numerically represented as Lamed [30] Gimmel [3] - hence 'Lag') of Sefirat HaOmer. While not a holiday in the same sense that Passover, Shavuot, or Chanukah is, it's still a festive day, especially in Israel, where people light huge bonfires.

Some people are happy just to make giant fires, have a BBQ, and otherwise enjoy a day with family and friends, but there is a deeper meaning behind the action. The period of 49 days from Passover to Shavuot is a time of mourning for Jews, to remember the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who died from a plague during this period of time 2,000 years ago. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was one of the 5 students that Rabbi Akiva started over with, once the plague had ended. He became the greatest teacher of Torah in his generation and dictated the guide to kabbalah - the Zohar, on his deathbed.

Lag Ba'Omer happens to be the yahrzeit (anniversary of his death) of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, and the bonfires are lit to commemorate the great fire and intensity that burned around Rabbi Shimon. He's actually known for setting the land on fire with his gaze. Tens of thousands of people flock to his grave on Mount Meron in northern Israel to celebrate, camping out days or weeks in advance to secure a good spot. It's kind of like a Phish concert for chassids.

The Zohar says that it's easier to connect with a great Rabbi after his death, than when he was alive, because they are more available for connection (since they aren't 'constrained' by their body), which is also why so many people go to his grave. Part of what Rabbi Shimon taught was how to find the holiness in yourself and others. You don't have to be at his grave in order to tap into the spiritual potential of the day. This year, on Lag Ba'Omer, why not take the time to nurture a particular character trait you see in a friend, or yourself. You never know how bright you might inspire others to burn.

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