A crowd thickens. Little boys chase each other, spinning imaginary circles around their dads. Women hover on the hillside. They look down at the men, a sea of black and white with wide brimmed hats bobbing in the evening breeze. Little girls draw closer and moms hug their newborns ever so tightly, hearts transmitting anticipation.
An old rebbe emerges and the crowd is silenced. The sea of black and white parts to let him cross. He holds a huge, black torch, cloth dripping in oil. Thick kerosene floats across the courtyard. He gently touches the torch to a pyre and as it licks the edge, flames leap to the stars. Joy erupts, the band starts to play, men chant and their feet sweep into a sweet, hypnotic dance. “Bar Yochai, nimshachta ashreicha, Bar Yochai, how fortunate are you...” Each verse of this meaningful Kabbalistic song extols how Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai perfected himself every one of the ten sefirot.
Lag B’Omer in Sfat is genuine. The town of Meiron, just across the Nahal Amud valley, is the original source of this unusual holiday but it attracts crowds so thick, and a tsunami of joy so full, it is hard to connect in Meiron, let alone breathe.
I prefer to be in Tsfat, to watch the light feet of the chassidim, be uplifted by the chanting and to see Meiron’s blazing bonfire at a safe distance, standing on Tsfat’s sun-bleached steps.
Each year, I leave Ra’anana, with its own style of Lag B’Omer, to be here. Ra’anana specializes in fireside hot dog roasts, but the bonfires are often fed with wood pinched from construction sites and dumped into stolen shopping carts. Teenagers gather to drink and kids insist on staying up all night. They jump around their flames, savage Lord of the Flies, then abandon their fiefdoms, leaving empty chip bags and sticky pop bottles beside embers that continue to burn a thick, sickly smell, coating the town in ash. This is as far from spiritual as ice in the Negev.
Near Meiron, in the spiritual town of Tsfat, I can touch Lag B’Omer. I look at the Chasidim dancing in multiple circles and jubilant rows, little boys perched atop shoulders, their young heads swimming proudly in their father’s streimels. I see young girls in long skirts and tight braids, and babies perched on young mom’s hips.At this moment, I feel joy and happiness in this life of innocence. And this is beauty. This is where spirit can dwell and nurture and erupt into heartfelt song.
Have modern-day folk lost their innocence to the call of internet, movies, tight jeans and break dancing? It is hard to balance spirit and matter, and perhaps when we choose to become more attached to the material world, we silence that small, still voice.
I crane my ear to the sound of a violin. A group of men are now dancing in the street. A young boy in jeans enters the circle. The chassids open their arms to include him and then link hands, tap their feet and sing. They are so light, complete and present, they could fly.