I ought to be lighting a bonfire tonight, since we've entered the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer. In Hebrew, the number 33 is spelled lamed-gimel; the two letters together are pronounced Lag, and the 33rd day of the Omer is called Lag b'Omer. And on Lag b'Omer, people light bonfires. Why? Well, it depends on who you ask.
One interpretation of the chronology in Torah holds that on this date, manna first began to fall from the heavens for the Israelites in the desert. Lag B'Omer (celebrated with picnics and rejoicing) can be understood as a commemoration of that happy miracle.
Another story (found in the Talmud) holds that 24,000 of the students of the great sage Rabbi Akiva died from a plague during the counting of the Omer because they failed to give one another proper respect (or, in Reb Zalman's interpretation, they failed to see the chen, divine grace, in one another.) Many traditional Jews observe limited mourning customs during the first 32 days of the Omer, in remembrance of that plague; Lag b'Omer marks the day when the plague came to its end, and hence, we celebrate.
An alternate interpretation holds that the students died as part of the Bar Kokhba revolt against Rome. We spend the first 32 days of the Omer mourning their deaths...until the 33rd day of the Omer, when we rejoice that the massacre finally ended. (The killing may have come to an end, but the outcome of the war was pretty bleak; the name Judea was erased from Roman maps, the study of Torah was prohibited, and Jews were barred from entering Jerusalem. Oy.) Fearing of reprisal from Roman authorities, the sages of the Talmud didn't want to mention the failed rebellion by name, so spoke of a "plague" instead.
Some Jews celebrate the yarzheit (death-anniversary) of the sage Shimon bar Yochai on this day; he was a student of Rabbi Akiva's, and it is to him that the Zohar -- germinal work of Jewish mysticism -- is traditionally attributed. In this understanding, we light bonfires to symbolize the way his teachings illuminated the night.
It interests me that these are the stories we tell about this minor holiday. Today is a day for remembering how important it is that we see the grace in one another, and honor one another's learning. It's a day to remember the dangers of following messianic figures into violent rebellion. And it's a day for celebrating illumination: not just the literal illumination of burning sticks and logs, but the metaphysical and spiritual illumination embodied in the wisdom of Torah and the Jewish mystical tradition.
In honor of that tradition, I want to offer a Hasidic teaching which relates to Lag B'Omer. It has nothing to do with the plague, or the rebellion, or anyone's yarzheit, but it's my favorite teaching about the holiday, hands down. This comes from a Hasidic rabbi called the B'nei Yisaschar (R' Zvi Elimelech of Dinov.) (You can find a version of it in this post The illumination of a good heart; I've learned it from my teacher Reb Elliot.) It's about the importance of having a good heart.
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said to his students: Go and see which is the good path to which a person should cleave. Rabbi Eliezer said: A good eye. Rabbi Yehoshua said: A good friend. Rabbi Yossi said: A good neighbor. Rabbi Shimon said: To foresee consequences. Rabbi Elazar said: A good heart. Their teacher said to them, I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach over your words, for included in his words are all of yours.
--Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), 2:13
Each of the rabbis' answers is important; it matters that we look on the world wisely, that we be good friends to one another, that we be good neighbors, that we pay attention to the consequences of our actions. But having a good heart is the most important of all, because it encompasses all of these.
The Hebrew word for good, tov, spelled tet-vav-bet, has a numerical value of 17. The word for heart, lev, is spelled lamed-bet, which has a numerical value of 32. Taken together, they make up the 49 days of the Omer. The whole journey of counting the Omer can be seen as a journey toward learning to truly have, and express, one's good heart. We've spent the first 32 days of the Omer cultivating the quality of heart; Lag B'Omer marks the transition into cultivating the goodness of those hearts, so that by the time Shavuot rolls around we're really ready for what's coming. Another resonance: Lag B'Omer is the 33rd day of the Omer; and the 33rd word of the Torah is tov. This is a day for celebrating what's good.
Returning to the Pirkei Avot quotation: what does it mean to look at the world with wisdom? Looking at the world as God did at the time of creation. What does it mean to have a good eye? It means seeing that creation is good, as God repeats throughout the early verses of Genesis. What does it mean to be a good friend? It means bringing opposites together in friendship, as God did in creating darkness and light as balances for one another. The Bnei Yisaschar sees the story of creation as a set of metaphorical instructions for us.
If we've been doing the spiritual work of counting the Omer -- the work of refining our hearts -- then today is a tipping point, a day when our hearts are capable of opening up in radical new ways. It's that open-heartedness which allows us to see the goodness in all things, to really experience the world with a lev tov, a good heart. May we all be blessed to grow in good-heartedness this Lag B'Omer, and may that expansive quality of heart enrich the final days of the Omer to come.