Lag B’Omer: The Forgotten Zionist Holiday
Ask someone which Jewish holiday occurs this week, and many people will draw a blank. While Pesach, Chanukah, and Purim are essential for so many religious and secular Jews alike — Lag B’Omer is often overlooked as an obscure date on the calendar. And yet, there is so much that we can and should take from that day. On one hand, Lag B’Omer is a holiday of mystery. Yet, on the other, it conveys sharp messages that are especially pertinent to Israel today. In fact, if we want to draw inspiration for the continued fulfillment of the Zionist dream, then Lag B’Omer is a powerful place to begin.
Most commonly, perhaps, Lag B’Omer is commemorated as a day of deep spiritual significance. We are told that it is the date on which a devastating plague that killed around 24,000 of the great Rabbi Akiva’s students, came to an end. One of his remaining disciples was Shimon Bar Yochai, who is thought to be the author of the mystical text, the Zohar. Bar Yochai is commonly believed to have passed away on Lag B’Omer, revealing some of Judaism’s deepest spiritual secrets on his deathbed. Consequently, on Lag B’Omer more than 50,000 people gather at Bar Yochai’s tomb on Mount Meron in northern Israel for a spectacular gathering of celebration and faith.
Yet, at the same time that Rabbi Akiva and Bar Yochai were spreading their wisdom, another story was unfolding. Shimon Bar Kochba led a determined revolt against the might of the Roman Empire. Cutting off a Roman garrison near Modi’in in 132 CE, Bar Kochba’s band of rebels took up arms and soon gained a foothold in the Judean hills, eventually carving out a Jewish state. Some believe that Bar Kochba actually reconquered Jerusalem on Lag B’Omer, and they use the holiday to celebrate his exploits. Bar Kochba’s three year revolt eventually succumbed to Rome. But only after 12 legions, probably numbering 100,000 men, had eventually defeated Bar Kochba in an epic final stand at Beitar, south of Jerusalem.
Bar Kochba and his brothers in arms would have been in little doubt that the odds were ultimately stacked against them. They faced the greatest empire known to man at the time. And only 60 years had passed since the ‘Great Revolt’ against the Romans culminated in the destruction of the Second Temple. Bar Kochba and his followers must have been weary of fighting, conflict, and death. And yet they rallied for the cause of Jewish freedom and Jewish independence. The sovereign Jewish state that Bar Kochba briefly achieved would not be replicated for another two thousand years.
Bar Kochba’s example teaches us that Jewish sovereignty, especially today, cannot be taken for granted. The State of Israel faces daily threats from the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah. Not only are their rockets and tunnels a real danger to Israeli life, but they are part of a wider effort to destroy Israel. The Hamas charter to this day declares that “Islam will obliterate” Israel. Yet, Hamas, Hezbollah, and other Islamist terror groups are merely affiliates of Iran’s global terror network. Let us not forget that although Tehran’s centrifuges may have temporarily slowed their work, Iran’s ayatollahs continue to fantasize over Israel’s destruction. In September, just weeks after signing a nuclear deal with the international community, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said that there will be no such thing as Israel in 25 years.
Of course, the threat to Jewish sovereignty today is not merely physical. Israel’s supporters across the world face an increasing atmosphere of intimidation. Zionism, the simple belief in the Jewish nation’s right to self-determination in our historic homeland, is too often shamefully recast as a wicked, imperialist doctrine. Jewish students, communal activists, and leaders across the world have come accustomed to displaying Bar Kochba-like resolve in order to publicly show their support for Israel. Lag B’Omer provides a chance to reflect and redouble our efforts in this challenging environment. Zionism never promised an easy road to Jewish statehood. Nonetheless, as Bar Kochba demonstrated, it is a road that is well worth taking.
And whether you relate more to the Zionist heroism of Bar Kochba or the spiritual fortitude of Rabbi Akiva and Shimon Bar Yochai, Lag B’Omer contains another important lesson in today’s Jewish world. Whatever we choose to commemorate, all Jews who mark Lag B’Omer will do so in identical fashion, sitting round a traditional bonfire. All will be united by its light and warmth — a rare example of the many strands of our people uniting as one. Surely that is something worth celebrating.
Ari Harow served as Chief of Staff to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and is now CEO of Sheyaan Consulting.