Thursday, May 26, 2011

Is Lag B'omer the new Yom Kippur?

I've never been to Meron for Lag B'omer, but I've just concluded a conversation with someone who made the pilgrimage this year. His account demonstrated to me that this newish celebration has many elements in common with the Yom Kippur observances described in the Torah. Better yet, his description suggests rather strongly that many the secular objectives once achieved in Jeriusalem on Yom Kippur are now being met on Mount Meron.

Originally, Yom Kippur was not about shul or prayers, but about a pageant performed by the high priest. What you did was stand in the fresh air with your friends, and watch your supreme religious official slaughter bulls and sprinkle blood and roast meat. At certain moments, you'd all stretch on the ground in adoration or submission to God and bellow a motto. I imagine participating as an observer was at once thrilling, and inspirational -- and probably great fun, besides. Aside from the pomp of the ceremony, there was also the unshakable conviction that participating was a surefire way to win blessing and favor for yourself. This was the day of atonement, a day when your fate was sealed, a day when your behavior could win sustenance and merit to last the year.

Now compare all of this with what happens in our day at Meron. Last Lag B'omer, nearly half a million Jews made the pilgrimage to Meron. Some, like my friend, were observers, not participants, who attended out of curiosity, but most were in the city for some of the same reasons the drove our ancestors to the Temple on Yom Kippur. The highlight of the show is the lighting of the bonfire, an event that stands in (very) rough parallel to the avoda of the High Priest. The bonfire is lit by the chief rebbe, and according to my friend, he performs various gesticulations with his hands and the torches that his Hasidim find amusing. Once the pyre is lit, the music starts to play and for the next several hours the people dance.

The Meron celebration occurs in three place:  In the tomb itself, at the bonfires of various Hasidic sects, and on the streets leading away from the mountain. What is the difference? Quoting my friend: "In the tomb its Yom Kippur; at the bonfires its Simchas Torah; everywhere else its Purim."

I asked about the Yom Kippur connection and he explained: "I spoke to some Hasidim who planned to say the entire book of Tehillim. As one put it, 'Last year, I asked for a shidduch for my daughter. She was married last winter. I'm back to say thank you and to ask for more.' Another told me he believed Shimon Bar Yochai was standing on the tomb with his arms open, dispensing blessings. "All we have to do is ask", he said "And we will receive.'"

Is there any other day like this in Judaism? True, most non-hasidim don't think of Lag Bomer as a day of pilgrimage, or a day in which blessings can be won, but many of the 500,000 people who traveled to Meron last weekend do see it that way. To them Lag Bomer matters, and  for many of the same reasons that Yom Kippur mattered to our forefathers.

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