For several weeks now, children, teenagers, and adults in Israel have been gathering tree branches, logs, and wooden crates for their Lag Ba’Omer bonfires. They work like skilled engineers, erecting tepee-shaped towers that rise thirty-feet high into the sky. The heat of the blaze is so intense, I have to be careful that my beard doesn’t catch fire.
The incredible wonder of Lag B’Omer in Israel is like nowhere else in the world. Not only are the hillsides of Jerusalem ablaze with towering bonfires in tribute to the great light of Torah that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai revealed; not only are the streets of Jerusalem inundated with the smoke of burning embers; but mountainsides and forests all over the country are lit up with the fiery love of Torah which kindles in every heart.
Not only the streets, my friends, but the smoke of these holy bonfires penetrates into every single apartment and house, like the aroma of incense on the Temple’s altar, penetrating through windows and concrete walls to reveal the inner spirit of every Israeli soul, of every Israeli home, revealing the secret, inner holiness of the entire country of Israel whose National Soul is completely Torah, no matter how secular its surface appearances may seem to be.
This recognition is doubly important today, in the wake of Israel’s expanding secular government, when it seems that the light of Torah is being threatened. Not so. Lag Ba’Omer, and the holy Zohar, which it commemorates, inspire us to look more deeply into the essence of our Nation’s existence and spiritual treasures.
This is what Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai taught us - to see below the surface appearance to the inner reality, to the secrets of Torah, where the light of Israel shines in an eternal, unquenchable blaze. The bonfires which light up the night on Lag Ba’Omer remind us that the eternal inner light of the Torah can never be extinguished in the deaths of our Nation’s soul.
Rabbi Kook encouraged the learning of the Zohar and said it was precisely its study which would forge a pathway to Redemption in helping us to uncover the great hidden light of Israel (Orot HaTechiya 57; Zohar, Parshat Naso 124B).
Inspired by the light of the Zohar, Rabbi Kook writes:
“Out of the profane, holiness will also come forth, and out of wanton freedom, the beloved yoke (of Torah) will blossom.... Let the bud sprout, let the flower blossom, let the fruit ripen, and the whole world will know that the Spirit of G-d is speaking within the Nation of Israel in its every expression. All of this will climax in a repentance which will bring healing and redemption to the world” (Orot HaT’shuva, 17:3).
Indeed, the revival of the Jewish Nation in Israel is a wonder that is impossible to explain in any mundane fashion. Clearly, there are powerful inner forces at work as we return to our Homeland. Increasingly sensitized to our own national longings, we realize that alien Gentile lands cannot be called home. The process takes time. The Nation is not transformed overnight. But gradually, the curse of exile is erased. From being a scattered people, the Israeli Nation returns to have its own sovereign state. G-d’s blessing is revealed in all facets of the Nation’s existence; military success, economic prosperity, scientific achievement, the resettlement of the Nation’s ancient cities and holy sites — all ultimately leading to a great national t’shuva, the renewal of prophecy, and the return of the Divine Presence to the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem, in fulfillment of our prayers.
Rabbi Kook explains that the secular, physical rebuilding which we have witnessed in our time must necessarily precede the spiritual building. The Talmud teaches that the Beit HaMikdash was first constructed in a normal, profane manner, and only after its completion was its sanctity declared (Me’ilah 14A). This is the pattern of spiritual building; first comes the physical vessel, and then its inner content. First the Ark is constructed, and then the Tablets are placed within.
Rabbi Kook writes:
“Occasionally, a concept falls from its loftiness and its original pureness after it has been grounded in life, when unrefined people become associated with it, darkening its illumination. The descent is only temporary because an idea which embraces spiritual goodness cannot be transformed into evil. The descent is passing, and it is also a bridge to an approaching ascent” (Orot HaT’shuva, 12:12).
The Zohar teaches that the original, pure, lofty idea of the return to Zion, the revival of the Jewish nation in Israel, is the earthly foundation for the revelation of the Kingdom of G-d in the world (Zohar, Ki Tisa, 276A).
However, when a holy idea needs to be grounded in reality, it necessarily descends from its exalted elevation. When this happens, people of lesser spiritual sensitivities seize the idea and profane its true intent. Because greater numbers of people can grasp the idea in its minimized form, its followers increase, bringing more strength and vigor to its practical implementation. This trend continues until the inner spiritual light arises to banish the material darkness.
“This process will surely come about,” Rabbi Kook proclaims. “The light of G-d, which is buried away in the fundamental point of Zion, and which is now concealed by clouds, will surely appear. All those who cling to it, the near and the distant, will be uplifted with it, for a true revival and an everlasting salvation.”
Rabbi Kook’s deep spiritual insight did not blind him to the unholy lifestyles of the secular pioneers, and we are not blinded to the painful shortcomings of their followers today. However, as the Lag Ba’Omer bonfires blaze all over Israel, filling each house with the aroma of Torah, we know that the holy essence of Am Yisrael guarantees that the Nation will return to its roots no matter how secular it looks on the outside.
Long before the establishment of the State of Israel, Rabbi Kook described this process in almost prophetic terms, declaring that a spiritual rebellion will come to pass in Eretz Yisrael amongst the people of Israel as a natural developmental stage of the Nation’s revival. “The material comfort which will be attained by a percentage of the Nation, convincing them that they have already completely reached their goal, will constrict the soul, and days will come which will seem to be devoid of all spirit and meaning. The aspirations for lofty and holy ideals will cease, and the spirit of the Nation will plunge and sink low until a storm of rebellion will appear, and people will come to see clearly that the power of Israel lies in its eternal holiness, in the light of G-d and His Torah, in the yearning for spiritual light which is the ultimate valor, triumphing over all of the worlds and all of their powers” (Orot, Pg 84).
Elsewhere he writes:
“The Nation’s eyes shall be opened, its soul will be cleansed, its light will shine, its wings will spread, a reborn Nation will arise, a great, awesome, and numerous people, filled with the light of G-d and the majesty of nationhood. ‘Behold, the people shall rise up like a great lion, and like a young lion, it shall lift itself up’” (Orot HaT’shuva, 15:11).
Therefore, my friends, don’t despair. Governments come and governments go, but the light of Torah shines on forever.