Every year, on the thirty-third day of the Counting of the Omer, thousands of people gather on the hills just northwest of the Sea of Galilee to dance and celebrate the life of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
They gather near the tomb where this holy sage was buried nearly two thousand years ago. Huge bonfires are lit, food and drink are passed out in abundance, and people dance late into the night. They all come for a unified purpose—to celebrate the power and depth of HaShem's Torah, which was communicated in new ways through the legacy of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. This joy radiates out from the heart of the Galilee and echoes around the world in Jewish communities that light their own bonfires, host parades, and dance to celebrate the immense spiritual light of the Torah. But who was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai?
In the rough and uncertain decades following the destruction of the Holy Temple, the Roman government intensely persecuted Judaism. At one point it became illegal to ordain new rabbis and forbidden to teach the Torah publically. Rabbi Shimon lived in the heart of this terrible time. There was immense pressure on Jewish leadership to maintain the faith while dodging the always watchful eyes of the anti-Jewish government. At one point Rabbi Shimon had to flee into hiding with his son. There was a decree issued that he would be killed upon arrest. He and his son hid in a cave in the Galilee for twelve years until they got word that the coast was clear for them to return to society.
During those years Rabbi Shimon and his son spent all day, every day, immersed in Torah study and prayer. When they emerged after twelve years of complete spiritual devotion, they were shocked to see people spending their days in the market and tending to fields. How could anyone waste their time on such mundane physical labor when they could be entrenched in a wholly spiritual relationship with God? Rabbi Shimon had always been a devoutly spiritual person, but twelve years immersed in this holy lifestyle left him unable to relate to average people. Wherever Rabbi Shimon or his son would look, the object of their gaze would burst into flames and cease to exist. Their vision was of a completely spiritual reality, and this physical reality did not stand up against their critical eye. HaShem immediately sent them back to their cave with an admonishment. He did not preserve their lives just so that they could destroy his world.
One year later Rabbi Shimon and his son emerged with a new perspective. As they were walking down the road, a man sped past them carrying fragrant myrtle branches, rushing home for Shabbat. Rabbi Shimon called to him, "What are those myrtle branches for"? The man responded that he had gathered these fragrant branches to bring honor to Shabbat. A smile crept across Rabbi Shimon's face, and he explained to Heaven how beautiful it is that God's children are eager to honor the Torah in such simple and beautiful ways, even while they are busy with the worries and chores of life.
Yeshua also had this perspective. He sought out beauty in the simple faith of a beggar, the sincerity of a sinner returning to God, and the deep longing for God among the throngs of ordinary poor people who gathered to hear him speak on the hills of the Galilee. In the days following Yeshua's resurrection, he left his disciples with final instructions to go into the world and make disciples of all nations. Yeshua did not want them to reflect among themselves on the spiritual insights that he had invested with them. They were told to go to the ends of the earth and change the world through the power of God's Spirit. I am sure that they went with the words of Yeshua ringing in their ears: "What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops " (Matthew 10:27). Their mission began during the Counting of the Omer, on the hills surrounding the Sea of Galilee.
In the wake of the apostles’ spiritual revolution came Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, about one hundred years later. The revelation of Messiah and a longing for the kingdom of God had swept the ancient Near East. And even though the majority of the Jewish people remained outside of Yeshua's school of disciples, a revelation of the Torah's spiritual depth was being planted in the midst of the Galilee through Rabbi Shimon's teachings.
On his deathbed, Rabbi Shimon brought near his closest disciples. For a day his bedroom filled with light as he taught them all the deepest secrets of the Torah that he had learned while in the cave and during his devoted life. He instructed them to celebrate his passing rather than mourn because he was entrusting them with his greatest treasure, knowledge of God's Torah. That day was the thirty-third day of the Omer.
During these days of the Omer, we recall Yeshua's resurrection, and we remember Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. So, on Lag BaOmer, remember that the whole world is advancing toward the kingdom of God when HaShem's light will be clearly revealed. We will know truth more deeply than we have ever known before. Until then, light a fire, dance with some friends, and treasure the opportunity you have as a disciple of Yeshua to reveal God's light in this world every day through your actions.