The Year In Israel
By Max Fruchter
For the 32 days succeeding the second night of Pesach, haircuts, weddings, and other forms of joyous activities are prohibited. Yet on this 33rd day, the mourning comes to an end and Jews of all religious identifications convene for singing and dancing. The jubilant atmosphere revolving around the legacy left by Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai is clear and ever-present. To show respect for this illustrious student of Rebbe Akiva, thousands of Jews migrate to Meron to dance and sing by his kever, and hundreds of thousands of Jews celebrate this momentous day across the country.
Upon returning late Saturday night from a Shabbos spent in Katamon, I began to gauge the possibility of making my way to Meron and returning to yeshiva on time. Ultimately, I decided to celebrate Lag B’Omer locally and see firsthand how Jews in Jerusalem commemorate the 33rd day of the Omer. A group of friends and I walked throughout the neighborhood of Bayit V’gan and quickly realized that every block shared a common setting–bonfires, music, and food were visible every which way you looked. Luckily, we had the opportunity to stop at numerous sites and observe the different forms of celebration. At certain locations, chassidim could be heard projecting divrei Torah, while directly across the street a group of secular Israelis could be seen grilling meat and lighting fireworks.
After walking around for some time, my friends and I came before the largest gathering we had seen that evening. Adjacent to an Israeli yeshiva in the neighborhood stood approximately 500 Jews of all ages and religious affiliations. Music blared through speakers mounted on a van, and cotton candy and popcorn kiosks were set up along the street. At the center of it all was a massive pile of wooden tables, chairs, couches, dressers, branches, and all sorts of old, unusable household furniture.
Prior to its lighting, this mound of junk would seem confusingly out of place and would cause anyone to wonder why it was not picked up and delivered to a junkyard. Yet only minutes after we arrived, about ten men lit torches, made their way around the enormous pile of wooden materials, and lit the largest bonfire I have ever seen.
At first, the fire provided nothing but pleasure as we all watched the tables and desks burn and quickly disintegrate into ash. Yet as the fire grew, we had no choice but to back up and watch from afar as the precautionary fire truck parked itself within a safe range of the blazing flame. It was not long after the initial lighting that onlookers began to worry. The eiruv was dangerously close to the immense heat and began to collapse. In a heartbeat, the rav present rushed over to the firemen and discussed how best to handle the situation and maintain a kosher eiruv. Despite this unfortunate occurrence, we all danced to the lyrics of “Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai” and watched with excitement as a group of young Israeli kids set off fireworks.
Above all, the camaraderie amid the diversity evident at this celebration made the night a special one for me. More impressive than the massive bonfire, music, and fireworks was the fact that the joyous occasion was shared by every type of Jew; age, dress, and religious observance held no weight on this scale of social acceptance.
As these thoughts transpired through my mind, I was reminded of an enlightening speech I had heard earlier that day in shul. A rabbi shed light on the fascinating and unique origin of bonfires on Lag B’Omer–the light of Torah passed on by Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai in sefarim such as the Zohar is symbolized through our lighting of fires in order to recognize its strength and potential. Yet above all, the common denominator between fire and Torah is the ability to be transferred limitlessly; just as anyone can share and appreciate Torah with his fellow Jew regardless of their differences, so too can a flame be passed on endlessly regardless of its strength or size.
In a beautiful way, Lag B’Omer seemed to tie together wonderfully in a manner I had never noticed before. The entire reason the 24,000 students of Rebbe Akiva perished stemmed from a lack in their respect for each other. The companionship evident at the huge bonfire that night led me to realize the indispensable need for all Jews to accept one another and share in the light of Torah, as symbolized each year in the form of a bonfire. v
Max Fruchter, a recent graduate of DRS Yeshiva High School in the Five Towns, is now attending yeshiva in Jerusalem.