A Strong Family Nurtures A Strong People
ne of the most unique dates
on the Jewish calendar is Lag
b'Omer, the 33rd day following
the first day of Pesach. This year it begins
on Saturday night, May 5.
Nearly a quarter of a million Jews
throughout Israel and beyond travel to
the town of Meiron, in northern Israel, to
light bonfires, eat, pray and dance at the
grave of the renowned second-century
rabbinic leader, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
For those who are unable to descend upon
Meiron, similar practices are observed in
parks, schools, synagogues and backyards,
throughout the world.
There are historical records that this
practice dates back hundreds of years.
For example, in a letter written to his
brother in 1489, the Italian-born rabbinic
leader Rabbi Ovadia Bartenura, shortly
after his arrival in Israel, recounts how he
witnessed the festivities and the lighting
of large torches that took place in Meiron
that year on Lag b'Omer.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, or simply
Rabbi Shimon, who appears often in the
Talmud, was a student of the great sage
and Jewish leader Rabbi Akiva. Shortly
after the failed Bar Kochba revolt against
the Romans, in 135 C.E., the Talmud
relates that Rabbi Shimon and his son,
Rabbi Elazar, fled to a cave, where they
remained in hiding for 13 years. According
to tradition, during this time, the two
studied together the revealed Torah and
the hidden, or secret Torah, the Toras
HaSod, also known as Kabbalah.
Rabbi Shimon wrote the material down,
for the first time, in a book called the Zohar.
Although at first it was only used by a select
few, it began to become more popular with
the masses during the 16th century.
The great 18th-century Jerusalem sage
and scholar Rabbi Chaim Yosef David
Azulai, popularly known as the Chida,
records that we have a tradition that Lag
b'Omer is the yahrtzeit, the anniversary
of the death, of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.
Although normally the anniversary of
death is certainly not a time to celebrate,
there is an exception made in this case. It is
recorded in the Zohar that, on the day of his
death, Rabbi Shimon revealed to his stu-
dents the deepest secrets of the Kabbalah.
In the Chassidic work Nesivos Shalom
by Rabbi Shalom Noach Brozovsky, it is
explained that the be-all and end-all of
authentic Kabbalah is a description of
the love between God and the
need to have a similar level of
Jewish people. The Zohar itself
commitment toward our fellow
states that if a Jew would fully
comprehend the extreme love
One of the unique aspects
that God has for us, he or she
about the celebrations in Meiron
would literally stop everything,
each year is that Jews from all
and in an allegorical sense, run
different backgrounds and levels
of commitment come together
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai
to participate in the festivities.
fully understood this uncon-
There is a true sense of belong-
ditional love that God has for
ing and brotherhood.
us, just as a parent has for his
Although we often focus on
or her child. By illuminating
our differences, perhaps Lag
(hence, the bonfires) for us this
b'Omer, Kabbalah and Rabbi
most basic and yet fundamental under-
Shimon Bar Yochai all remind us that in
standing of our relationship with God,
spite of the very real and significant theo-
Rabbi Shimon's life and his teachings are
logical and practical divisions that exist
celebrated each year on Lag b'Omer, the
among us, we must always be cognizant
day of his passing.
that we are brothers and sisters.
By flocking to Meiron in the thousands
Certainly within a family there can be
and by commemorating this day in all
many disagreements and viewpoints; but
parts of the world, we try to tap into this
when there is respect and unconditional
unconditional love. Through its observance love, then the family unit will remain
we hope to gain a fuller appreciation and a strong and we, as a united people, will be
better recognition of the intimate role that
better prepared to face the challenges that
God lovingly exerts within our lives.
In addition, Lag b'Omer perhaps teaches
us that just as God has this unconditional
Yechiel Morris is rabbi of Young Israel of
love for us, so too, we must internalize the
AJC head tackles issues surrounding Russia, Rosenfeld paper, energy, U.N.
Special to the Jewish News
avid Harris, 57, has been
the executive director of the
American Jewish Committee
(AJC) since 1990. The AJC was established
in 1906 in response to pogroms aimed at
Russian Jews. Today, AJC operates 35 U.S.
and eight overseas offices, including one
Harris was recently in town for a series
of meetings and to give the keynote
address at an April 19 dinner honor-
ing AJC's centennial anniversary. AJC's
101st annual meeting will be held in
Washington May 1-4.
For more information on AJC, visit
www.ajc.org . For the complete interview,
visit www.jnonline.us .
Q: You recently met with high-level
officials in Russia. What do you make
of President Putin and what are the top
issues on the Jewish agenda?
A: Russia under President Putin has
May 3 2007
reemerged on the
world stage as an
after the decade of
the 1990s when the
country was slipping
toward Third World
status ... In the last
14 months alone,
we've met privately
with Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minis-
ter, five times.
Our agenda with him and other Russian
leaders? Iran tops the list. As a permanent
member of the U.N. Security Council and
given its bilateral ties with Iran, Moscow
has a key role to play on the Iranian nucle-
ar issue. We also discuss Russian arms
sales policies, which, regrettably, have
included recent deals with Iran and Syria.
As a member of the Quartet, Russia
deals with Arab-Israeli issues. Fortunately,
unlike the communist era, Moscow has a
strong link with Jerusalem and President
Putin made an important visit to Israel.
And, not least, we are deeply interested in
the Russian Jewish community
Q: AJC was blasted by some, and
cheered by others, for publishing the
Alvin Rosenfeld paper on how criti-
cism of Israel by Jewish progressives
promotes anti-Semitism. What do
you make of the debate the paper has
engendered? Would you have done any-
A: Neither Rosenfeld nor AJC for a
moment questions the right, indeed the
duty, to discuss and debate issues affecting
Israel, exactly as takes place in the Knesset
and Israeli media every day. Rather, his
essay dealt with those Jews who demon-
ize Israel in the most grotesque terms and
question its very right to exist. Rosenfeld
turned the tables on them.
Their reaction was revealing. They
and their defenders cried foul, as if they
somehow deserved immunity from scru-
tiny. The debate provoked by the essay
has been salutary, even if it got off to an
unexpected start with inaccurate New
York Times reporting ... The only thing
we'd have done
be to exclude
Richard Cohen, the
Washington Post syndi-
cated columnist, from the essay.
Q: I understand AJC is working on
energy policy, particularly as it relates
to oil imports and the Middle East.
A: [The energy question] needs to be
addressed not episodically, as has been
the case over the years, but systematically,
with the same can-do, full-court press that
our nation mounted in the Manhattan
Project and the man-on-the-moon effort.
Otherwise, our growing energy depen-
dence represents our Achilles' heel, and
don't think oil-exporting countries like
Iran and Venezuela don't know it ...
We've hired a full-time energy specialist
in our Washington office to urge govern-
ment action to reduce dependence on oil
from unfriendly countries, increase con-
servation and support research and devel-