Voices from the field

Lag B'Omer: Playing with Fire

By Josh Feigelson

Lag B'Omer and Israel means mainly one thing to me: fire.

The custom of lighting bonfires may have mystical roots. Lag B'Omer is observed as the yahrtzeit (death anniversary) of the second-century sage Rabbi Shimon bar-Yochai. Legend has it that, prior to his death, Bar Yochai revealed all of his mystical secrets. Thus the bonfires: the light of Bar Yochai is not extinguished.

Be that as it may, for young kids (young boys in particular), fire is fascinating in and of itself, and a warm spring night like those that Lag B'Omer invariably falls on, is a great time to take some dry wood to a fire pit to make it blaze. Walking outside in the evening of Lag Ba'omer, one sees bonfires all over the place. But even more, one smells them. The smoke is everywhere, even the next morning. (For many of us, that's not terribly pleasant.)

Of course, Lag B'Omer derives its name not from Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai or from the bonfires, but from the Omer, the 49-day period of counting that links Pesach and Shavuot. Lag is 33 in gematria (Lamed=30, Gimmel=3). In the kabbalistic counting of the Omer, this day is Hod she'b'Hod: Beauty within beauty. It is the most beautiful day of the year. Perhaps the emphasis on fire is related to this: the dancing light and warmth of a fire is an essentially beautiful thing.

But fire is also one of the ultimate symbols of the potential goodness and potential destructiveness in human activity. A fire can produce light and heat, it can bring comfort, it can inspire us. But fire can also choke us with its smoke and destroy indiscriminately. It has to be tended to, guarded, and put to good use.

In this sense too, fire becomes a metaphor- and in fact it is one of the Rabbinic metaphors for Torah. When we teach Torah, when we engage our students through the richness of Jewish thought and tradition--and through Israel--we are playing with fire: we can light a spark, but we have to be careful at the same time. Perhaps then that's what the fires of Lag B'Omer are really there to do: to remind us, as the spring turns to summer, of what this season of our activity and effort can bring, and what we need to do to make it successful.