Are You a Lag B'Omer Grinch?
Do you consider it a festival to celebrate?
Many people find it difficult to get excited about Lag B’Omer. It’s sometimes described as the day on which the person who didn’t write the Zohar didn’t die, celebrated at the place where he isn’t buried.
What about the cessation of the plague that killed Rabbi Akiva’s students? There is a medieval tradition that this plague ended on Lag B’Omer. But it is difficult to present this as being a reason for celebration; the plague ended because they had all died.
The fact is that traditionally, Lag B’Omer was never anything other than a very minor festival, the ultimate reasons for which have been lost to history. Only in the last few decades was it inflated to a major celebration of spirituality, mysticism and pyromania.
Does that really matter? Should the inaccuracies and ignorance prevent a spiritual celebration? No, not necessarily. If Lag B’Omer were to be a valuable spiritual celebration, and with there being no other considerations, I for one would not nitpick about its historical origins.
But is this the case?
Rav Eliezer Melamed, while presenting the standard reasons for celebrating Lag B’omer with bonfires and visiting Meron, notes that many great Torah scholars disregard such customs. And in a lecture delivered some time ago, he criticized the phrase “aliyah to Meron”; aliyah is something that we do to Har HaBayit. He also stated that the celebrations which take place at Meron are not simcha shel mitzvah.
Still, there is no doubt that mysticism is something to find a day to celebrate, especially if you’re mystically inclined. And singing and dancing around a bonfire can create an ecstatic high. For rationalists in the path of Rambam, and especially if they are grumpy Englishmen, this is generally not their kind of spiritual high. But I suppose that for others, it is beneficial in that way.
Nevertheless, I think it’s difficult to detach Lag B’Omer from the Meron disaster of two years ago; the worst civilian tragedy in the history of Israel. And this is especially because the tragedy, to a certain degree, happened precisely as a result of mystical thinking.
It was mystical thinking which led Aryeh Deri to claim that those who opposed him opening up the site for tens of thousands of people during Covid didn’t understand the protective merit created by Rav Shimon bar Yochai. It was a lack of appreciation for the reality of the laws of nature and scientific expertise which meant that religious askanim didn’t care about the science of hosting very large crowds at venues that do not conform to safety protocols. People who are focused on mysticism and miracles tend not to have very high regard for the laws of science and the natural way of the world.
And there’s a further reason to give more consideration to the Meron tragedy: it was a microcosm of the disaster that potentially faces the entire country. When Meron hosted just a few thousand people, there was little need to think about engineering and the science of crowd control. But scaling up to tens or hundreds of thousands requires a whole different way of thinking. By the same token, it didn’t matter so much that charedim didn’t serve in the IDF or have a high rate of professional employment when they were just a tiny minority. But when they become a sizeable proportion of the population (one-third of first graders are charedi), it becomes a major threat not just to their own community, but to the economy and security of the entire country.
We don’t know of any actual historical reason to celebrate Lag B’Omer. But there is certainly reason to treat it as a day of mourning and teshuvah.
(Meanwhile, this grinch is under orders from his wife to take the younger children to a bonfire, and to be careful about undermining what they are taught at school!)
For an index of my posts about the Meron tragedy, see this link.
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