Lag Ba’Omer, From The Top

La Ba’Omer is the best. I will explain this holiday to you. But it is a long story.

In the Beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.

Why he would do this is mysterious, and the matter cannot be easily adjudicated in a humble space like this. The best way to put it is that He desired to be in a new way. As He is unto Himself, but in Another place. He wished to demonstrate, to Himself, that He was as True in a false place or that all places were false in light of His truth or something. It took Him six days, and the sixth of these was Friday, and we call it the first of Tishrei, Rosh Hashana, head of the year. (We celebrate the sixth day because that is when man was created, and despite what anyone may tell you, the universe was created for him.)

However, some opinions say that man was, or could have been, or will be created on the First of Nissan — a spring month, halfway across the year from Tishrei, a time of rebirth and sprouting rather than withering and in-gathering. That the world could have been created on either says something about the world.

In any case, these two months have since then ever competed for the main focus of Jewish life. The fall season also includes Yom Kippur,

The fall season also includes Yom Kippur, day of atonement, and Sukkot, the festival of ingathering and joy, and Simchat Torah, when the yearly Torah cycle ends and begins again, for all eternity. The fall season is one half of the dance between man and G-d. It is the part when man tallies his deeds, considers his distance from the Creator, and attempts to make amends. Our motion toward the creator takes the shape, like all things born, of a pregnancy. The relationship is established on Rosh Hashana, when we convince G-d the project of creation is worth continuing. The consummation is on Yom Kippur, when we are as angels in a moment of sublime unity with the creator. The child grows through its time in the Sukkot booth, the seed becoming differentiated and fully-formed, and its birth-culmination is on Simchat Torah.

The spring season is diametrically opposed. It is the time when G-d moves close to man, whether man is ready or not. The relationship is foreshadowed by the drunken celebration of Purim, and a month later is consummated in the commemoration of that ultimate moment of kindness, when G-d took us from Egypt on a promise, on Passover, to go receive the Law in the desert. But we were not ready. That was only the seed. The pregnancy for such a great gift, that it may survive in the world, takes 49 days. The 50th is what may scientifically be respectfully termed “The Event at Mount Sinai”. Between the lesson that there is a G-d before whom nature and empires are a plaything, and the choosing of a nation for a perilous mission, there are 7 weeks. 49 days, and most of them are for introspection and mourning.

One exception is the 33rd, tonight and tomorrow.

The 49 days are called the Omer. The 33rd day is Lag Ba’Omer.

It “happens” (if such a term is not idol worship) that the 33rd was the day of passing of Rashbi, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

The Rashbi lived in the Mishnaic period and studied under the famous Rabbi Akiva. He was a master of all forms of Torah, and a contender for one of the greatest men who ever lived. Most relevant, perhaps, for our time, he was the author of the holy Zohar, the book of radiance, key to the Kabbalah. He was, in this sense, something like Moses. While Moses gave the world the Torah in its revealed sense, rules and laws telling man how to live, Rashbi gave the world a hidden Torah, containing the secrets of the creation, mystical prophecy, He spoke of a third realm, a reality between the world and the creation of which philosophy cannot dream. He spoke of metaphors, and they were true metaphors, for what happens below has a source above. He spoke of Light and Vessels, of the heavenly chariot, of secrets that belonged to the few because in the wrong hands they led to madness, idol worship, and death. Not by accident was he the student of R’Akiva, the only of the four to enter and exit the orchard in peace.

Most profoundly, maybe, he revealed an inner truth to the Torah of Moses. He showed that what appeared on its surface to be a law was much more, was a step in the reparation of creation, a step toward the state G-d imagined when He created the world, the state in which He would be known in a different place as He knows Himself. Just as Moses gave us stitches for the binding of will and truth, the animal and G-d’s will, so did Rashbi let us bind the world and G-d, explained to us how the commandments refine the truth of G-d from the world, and their source in the sublime.

I’m sure it was an accident he passed away on the 33rd day of the Omer, and asked that his death be a celebration for all time. After all, the Omer is the process of bringing the simple faith-truth of G-d into a tangible reality, of systematizing the One truth. It has 49 days, because in the Kabbalah there are 50 gates of understanding, but only the first 49 are available to man. We can only prepare. But the 50th gate on the 50th day, the Event at Sinai, G-d must give.

But in Kabbalah, understanding is only the second step. Before understanding comes wisdom, as the question precedes the answer. And in the Kabbalah, there are 32 paths of wisdom. 32 steps to preparing for an even deeper truth. But the 33rd path transcends them and is the ultimate, the place where Highest Truth resounds in the lowest depth, for that’s what makes it highest. For that, G-d must provide, and as he sent Moses, he sent the Rashbi. And that is what, tonight and tomorrow, we celebrate, on the 33rd day of the Omer, between the Exodus and the giving of the Torah at Sinai.

Three Types of Baal Teshuva

I have extensive experience at both normative and late-starter Yeshivos (religious schools for Jewish men). While I find, socially, that I simply get along better with other Baalei Teshuva (Jews raised as non-religious who become religious later in life) due to shared interests and experiences, and I completely understand the tendency of Baalei Teshuva to stick together and form their own sub-communities, I have felt my share of alienation from this group as well. It is not due to any discrimination in particular or the like, but rather because our Jewish lives focus around different goals.

Based on my experiences, I would posit that the vast majority of Baalei Teshuva fall into one of two types, or, more accurately, are pursuing one of two paths toward a greater closeness with G-d. Very occasionally I meet another Jew who has come religious for the same reason I have, and we loosely form a strange, third group. None of these groups has a deeper or more correct claim to Judaism; they are three paths to the same end, and I personally have probably been part of each one at some brief point. It is only through extended social and mental sorting that I’ve come to realize I am part of group three.

The first group is what I call the religious one. Anyone who has been in Yeshiva knows this type. They are the ones who get up earliest and go to sleep latest, or at least respect the ones who do. They came to Judaism to find order and justice, not just in the personal but in the cosmic sense. They are moved by the idea that there is good and evil, that there is a reckoning in this universe and that good is rewarded and evil is punished, at the end of the day. Often their lives before they became religion involved crime or at least some sort of wild abandon, and when they throw themselves into religious practice they throw themselves into the deep end, keeping a lot of things at once and putting enormous pressure on themselves. They usually either end up being the most insanely successful Baalei Teshuva in technical terms or they burn out. The tools of their life’s craft are built out of brute, solid facts — the clear truths of unreachable G-d and their own mission. Their superpower is investiture, the ability to succeed within any bounds.

The second group is spiritual. These are the Baalei Teshuva that are not seeking curtailed, rules-based lives but rather a fling with the divine in the style of Hafiz or (l’havdil) Rebbe Nachman. They pursue G-d in nature and colorful things rather than the black and white. They smoke up before praying and have amazing protracted experiences with the creator (or so it is sincerely claimed). They often turn to some sort of art as a vessel for their passion for Judaism. They tend to focus more on the interpersonal or mystical teachings, though of course the vast majority keep Jewish law to its utmost etc. These were the ones in Yeshiva who were always reading Rav Kook or listening to Carlebach recordings and who felt drawn to Nachlaot and the Gush. They make their lives rainbow tributes to Hashem or they end up wearing robes and yelling at people in the shuk like madmen. Their tools are all communicative/relational; they make torque of the space between man and man, man and G-d. Their superpower is transcendence, finding space to operate the truth beyond any set limitations.

The third group is what I call existential, and it is by far the smallest. These are people who don’t demonstrate a clear reason for becoming religious. They are not religious and have a lot of trouble following rules both of Yeshiva and of Shulchan Aruch; they sometimes have trouble doing anything consistently at all, and often resent the law. On the other hand, they are not spiritual either; they don’t have great personal experiences during prayer or at the Kotel or anywhere else and come to envy and even resent those who do. Both these types of resentment spring from an inner desire for authenticity, and this is what makes them tick. They are seeking a life of elegance in the technical sense, in which a painful, meaningless existence is granted purpose and direction. They are drawn forward, kicking and screaming, through their studies and service by the need to see behind the veil, to get at the resolutions of the cruel paradox of existence. They seek to not exist. Rather than finding purpose in their limits like a religious Jew or transcending their limits by dint of their soul like the spiritual Jew, they seek to cut their bonds with the sharpened edge of their own righteous angst, the remains of something innocent and pure that seems to have died long ago. Their pursuit of authenticity either takes them far away from not just religion but society, or it attains what they were looking for all along. Their tools are forged from dead things. Their superpower is the perseverance of life; what is dead may never die.