Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Meaning of the Fire

On Lag b'Omer (starting last night and ending tonight at sundown), all the pyromanics, and by this I mean most of the men and a lot of women and pretty much all the children, in Israel have a huge celebration and set bonfires. By the morning, the country smells of smoke...ah, but the night is glorious.

For weeks before this day, children are seen gathering wood, even from places that don't want the wood gatthered. Contractors know to hide whatever they don't want burned; families look at their couches and wonder if this wouldn't be a great time to literally burn the old one and get a new one. Broken chairs and beds become a treasure, old newspapers something to be saved.

Yesterday as I was driving into the gas station, I saw something in the distance. The army sets up a "camp" a few times a year in the deserts around my city. I can see the tents from the distance...but this time, I saw a group of soldiers almost running down a hill opposite the camp. I thought of the many long hikes Davidi is taking now. Over the months that he's been in the army, the training has intensified and he is now "walking" over 30 kilometers.

Photo Credit: Paula (me)
I had my good camera with me and so I zoomed in and took the picture...and then I looked and realized...they are carrying wood. They too will have a huge bonfire and celebrate Lag b'Omer and how spectacular it must have been.

Massive piles of wood are set up and then set afire. Why? There are a two main reasons - one would be that during the 50 days between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot, around the year 100 CE (yes, that's rightt, almost 2,000 years ago) a plague raged among the population, but stopped on this day.

Photo Credit: Paula (me)
A second reason is that a great man died over 1,850 years ago on this date. His name was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. His life was all about light - bringing the light of truth and understanding, of compassion and love. He wrote the Zohar, a collection of writings that are the foundation of Jewish mysticism.

So each year, on the day he died, Jews celebrate his life - yes, even 1,850 years later.

The fire is light, a symbol from mountain top to mountain top that we have returned to our land, reclaimed it, redeemed it. And just as we have returned to it, we have returned it to its glory.

Yes, it is the celebration of a man's life, but it is also the celebration of our nation. We light the bonfires as a symbol of the life we have built here, from mountain top to mountain top, we proclaim our love of the land.

In the last few weeks, there have been countless arson attacks  - fires set by Palestinians...this year and for most years, at the most dangerous and vulnerable time of the year. It is the beginning of the dry season; the underbrush has grown during the rainy season and our forests and grassy areas are particularly vulnerable. It's hot and the wind that comes as a relief, also is a dry one - dangerous as it spreads the fire.

Photo Credit: Real Jerusalem Streets
The fires we build for Lag b'Omer, are carefully arranged, doing the most we can to prevent them from going out of control.

And Lag b'Omer is also a celebration of our collective memory - we live in an ancient land, beside walls built thousands of years ago. Certainly monthly, sometimes weekly, and even once in a while daily, we find ancient treasures dating back as much as three thousands years. Can you imagine touching stones that were placed by your ancestors? My daughter goes to school in a city where Sarah died 3,875 years ago...and I have been to her grave countless times.

The bonfires are a reminder, to a people that really don't need one. Remember your past; celebrate it. We do; we did.

For a really great blog post explaining Lag b'Omer, see: The Muqata's latest post.

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