September 3, 2009

Lag B’Omer in Meron

What causes 250,000 Jews from all over Israel (and the world) to congregate on the same day in one small moshav outside one ancient cave? What is it that inspires many of them to camp nearby in tents, to stay up all night singing, dancing and learning and to pour out their hearts reciting tehillim (psalms)? Where does this joy come from; this unparalleled exuberance; this unflappable, contagious energy?

This special place is Meron and this propitious time is Lag B’Omer. In Hebrew, lamed gimmel is the number 33 and as an acronym, these letters spell out the word ‘lag.’ This day marks the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer. (Day One was the night after the Pesach Seder and the counting culminates on Day 49, the night before Shavuot.)

The 33rd day signifies the end of mourning for the students of Rabbi Akiva who died from a mysterious plague. In the Gemora, in the tractate of Yevamos 62b, it says that 24,000 of the finest Torah scholars died during this time from a croup-like illness. We are told that they died because they did not have respect for one another and did not treat each other with dignity.

After the tragic death of his students, Rabbi Akiva began to teach again, and one of his foremost students was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Shimon bar Yochai died on the 18th of Iyar, which is Lag BaOmer.

Known as the Rashbi, this mysterious Torah scholar hid from the Romans in a cave for 12 years. He spent these years in hiding with his son, learning and writing the Zohar HaKadosh, a mystical book which is the basis of Kabbalah. On his dying day, he revealed many deep secrets to his students.

Centuries later, this time was also a period of terrible tragedy for Jews in Germany and France. As a result, we treat these 33 days as a period of mourning: we do not listen to live and recorded music; we refrain from getting haircuts; men do not shave; and we do not celebrate weddings.

It was the Arizal who started mass pilgrimages to this burial cave on the yahrzeit, the anniversary of the Rashbi’s death. Over the years, many people who come here on this day have had their prayers answered.

This procession died out over the years but was reinstated by Rav Shmuel Abu in the 1820s. He helped fund the renovations of Shimon bar Yochai’s grave and, as a token of appreciation, he was given a Torah. A lively parade to the Rashbi’s grave began with this very Torah and continues to this day, except the Torah is now driven to Meron. Nonetheless, there is a lot of excitement, live music and dancing as the Torah leaves the Abu home in Safed on the afternoon of Lag B’Omer.

The main street of Zefat closes down and police guard the way while people line the road in anticipation of kissing and dancing with the Torah. As the Torah passes by, women wrap colorful scarves around the scroll, yodel in their distinct Sephardi style and clap their hands. Men hand out sweets and plastic cups of liquor along the way. The procession moves slowly, often stopping for a song and a dance. Every man in town has a chance to dance with the Torah until finally the Torah is placed in a car and chauffeured to Meron.

This past Lag B’Omer, we said our farewell to the Torah and decided that we would follow the steps of the Arizal and walk to Meron. It was already late in the afternoon. We threw our backpacks on our shoulders and walked down to the old cemetery and below to Nahal Amud. We know the trails of the Nachal Amud but had never walked all the way to Meron.

Last year, we took the bus to Meron on Lag B’Omer and after getting stuck in an enormous traffic jam for hours, we decided that it was better to rely on our own two feet this time around.

The late afternoon sun glistened through the trees. We imagined how many great scholars and mystics had taken this same well-worn trail from Safed to Meron over the centuries. Today, trail blazes clearly mark the way. We actually had no idea how long the hike would take, so we decided to pick up the pace – just in case! We had one small flashlight between three of us, cell phones and a determination to make it before the sun set.

We ran into another group who were following the same trail – a family from Gush Etzion. We walked together for a while, following a winding river that glistened between the fig trees.

I suddenly ran into a group of people lying across the trail, looking up into the trees with wonder. They seemed spellbound with life in the forest – or perhaps it was thanks to some other magical substance. One girl handed something to me and told me to hold it up to the trees. I took it and looked through. It was a kaleidoscope. I saw the sun shimmering through the leaves in what looked like a multitude of colored geometric shapes. Yes, it was beautiful, but it was also getting late. I warned the group about the time but they were in no state to feel worry. They were happy to stay put and gaze in surrender at the lush nature around them. The festivities in Meron go all night long, so they felt they had time, even if it meant groping through a dark forest where wild boar prowl.

We picked up the pace and ended up on the famous Shvil Israel, the Israel Trail, hugging the bank of the river. We started to hear music and knew that Meron could not be too far away. As we walked on, the sun started to dip in the sky. The music strengthened and so did our determination. The path ended in a valley, opening up into a clearing. By the time we crossed over the highway, the music was pulsating and the sun had set.

We passed by tents set up amongst the trees and blazing camp fires. We walked past families with babies, young yeshiva students, older couples – all camping nearby so as to get a taste of the energy of Meron.

We walked on through the forest and finally came to the town. It was already thronging with people, loudspeakers screamed out words of Torah, people were handing out food and drinks for free in order to perform a mitzvah, and music was blaring. I was shocked by it all. Having just spent hours in a quiet forest, I felt like I had emerged from the dark into the blazing sun. It was all a little too much for us.

People come here from all over Israel and around the world. We had met someone in Tzfat this afternoon who had just got off a plane from New York and was pulling around a suitcase on wheels. We ran into others who had just flown in from the States, jumped into a rental car and then driven up to Meron.

Buses are chartered from Bnai Brak and Jerusalem. Buses upon buses arrive all night long, depositing people along the road. Young religious mothers get out of the buses, strollers in one arm, baby crooked under the other and a toddler hanging onto the back. How they handle small children in this crowd is beyond my abilities. I see old men with wild white beards, soldiers still in uniform, backpackers with torn jeans and flip flops, giggling high school girls tossing back their long black braids, yeshiva students in crisp white shirts and pressed black pants, secular Israelis with dreadlocks. I detect English, American and Australian accents. I hear French, Spanish, German and Dutch. I see Temani families, Ashkenazi families and Ethiopian Jews.

People were pressing along a fence, all peering in expectation. There were bleechers set up and yeshiva boys were literally hanging off the back, scrambling up the poles, all trying to get a look. The crowd was screaming and the loudspeakers blaring “Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.” A woman beside me was fervently reading Tehillim, her cheeks streaked with tears.

Suddenly, the many choruses became one loud cry. The men stood up, swaying and clapping, a sea of black hats and black coats. I was too far away to see a thing, but I knew what was happening: the torch was being carried to light the main bonfire. And with this one huge blaze, the festivities officially began.

Everyone started pushing away from this area. I did not know where they were going and am not sure they knew themselves. Many people headed for the kever, the place where the Rashbi is buried, but I am not sure how many get close to it on a night like this.

I was swept up by the crowd and thrown into its crazy ebb and flow. People pushed and I tried to keep my footing, fearful this would turn into a stampede. I prayed that this surge would pass and soon enough, the crowd parted, depositing me on some street corner below a huge picture of the Breslov Rebbe.

I heard “Rabbi Nachman, Nachman m’Uman” being sung to a reggae beat. A group of men danced in frenzied circles, black coat tails flying, dreadlocks bopping, long curled peyes hopping and knit kippot flapping. They flew in circles, arms locked around each others shoulders, all joyful, all celebrating being together.

It is these micro moments that I connect with the most; times when religious and non religious Jews joins arms, their souls uniting as Am Israel Chai. These moments show that we can overcome the mistakes of Rabbi Akiva’s scholars by respecting each other despite our differences. When united we are so strong.

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