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From the Fire of Destruction to the Fire of Redemption

“The custom of Israel is law,” said our sages, and for good reason. Israel’s customs hide lofty meanings that enrich our lives in deep and hidden ways within simple deeds. One of these customs is the Lag BaOmer bonfires, which illuminate the thirty-third night of the Omer and unite young and old around them.

These bonfires hide a deep and wonderful secret, since Lag BaOmer is the day of the passing of the holy Tana Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. The Book of Zohar tells of the day of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s death, which is the day he revealed to his students the deep secrets of the Torah that are the basis of all Kabbalah: “All that day the fire did not stop burning at the house and there was no one who could reach it, to Rabbi Shimon, because of the fire and light that surrounded him.” This great fire, which enveloped Rabbi Shimon and his close students as they dealt with the secrets of the Torah and protected them from the outside world, reminds us of another fire that sought to consume those Torah learners – for Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his disciples were the remnants of a terrible massacre.

Only a few years before the events described in the Zohar, the Bar Kokhba Revolt broke out, following which the Roman Empire rose to completely destroy the Kingdom of Judea. The Romans sought to erase any hope of redemption the Jewish people had. They killed tens of thousands and tortured to death the Torah scholars, especially Rabbi Akiva, the rabbi of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. They razed Jerusalem to the ground and built in its place a Roman city called Aelia Capitolina and erased the name Judea from the maps of the empire and wrote “Palestina” in its place.

Out of that historic tragedy arose Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his students, and precisely during those most terrible days, they gave the Jewish people and the entire world the deepest and most sublime secrets of the Torah. The sages of “Torat Hanistar” (the hidden Torah) taught our ancestors to see beyond reality, to use the eyes of the spirit and to seek sparks of light even in the greatest darkness. Torat Hanistar gave meaning to the long exile and gave strength when it seemed that all was lost.

The same fire that descended on the world with the passing of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai continued to burn in hearts throughout the generations. The fire of the Roman destruction became the fire of redemption for Rabbi Shimon and his students. A fire of dedication and exaltation that has burned within the hearts of the entire Jewish people throughout the generations. A fire that has the power to banish all darkness and unite around it our brothers and sisters, the entire house of Israel.

This, then, is the secret of the flames in the Lag BaOmer bonfires – the secret of the fire of Torah that burns in each and every one of us. Fire has the power to turn darkness into light and to turn even the worst destruction into the beginning of a great redemption.