Hillula to Her Heart
By Rabbi Michael Moskowitz
The mullet tosses and hog roasts of my secular, southern upbringing did little to prepare me for the party I attended in Meron 15 years ago today. I was a Yeshiva student in the Mir and went with my hasidic study partner, and more than 200,000 of our closest friends, to celebrate the life of R’ Shimon Bar Yochai, the author of the mystical work of the Zohar, who is buried there.
We arrived by bus, well after midnight, to a massive grassy field. The sky was illuminated through the smoke and fog from bonfires and the lights of an endless caravan of busses. I looked around for the familiar sight of pickup trucks, mud wrestling, or denim overalls – there were none.
We made our way through an overflowing indoor mosh pit of men singing, whose bodies threatening to crush the old walls from the inside, past the animals that were tied up to be slaughter, guarded by women in tie dyed outfits dancing like they were the only ones there. Finally we arrived at an enormous pile of wood that had been doused with leftover oil and wicks from Chanukah. The Rebbe, surrounded by hundreds of fathers and their 3 year old sons waiting for their first haircuts, lit the fire with such holy and deliberate intention that it felt like the wood had waited its entire existence for this moment and was present in conscious partnership.
It was the strangest blend of things and people that I have ever seen. What brings folks from so many diverse parts celebrating, in both relatively similar and unrecognizably different ways, to the grave of a mystic on his yartzeit in jubilant reverence that has nothing like it in all of Judaism?
Perhaps, just as R’ Shimon Bar Yochai brought forth the Zohar as a reflection of his soul, Lag B’omer invites us to cultivate and tend the unique gifts and expression of Spirit each of us brings into the world. Celebrating the commonality of individually hosts a party like no other that supports everyone being equally themselves in original ways.
The talmud teaches us that the actions of our ancestors are a sign for their descendants – maasi avot, siman l’bunim.
At Jacob’s initial encounter with Rachel, he arrives at a well that is covered with a stone. When Jacob sees Rachel, he rolls the stone from the mouth of the well, waters her sheep, kisses her, and begins to weep (Genesis 29:10-11). In this passage, the stone on the well acts as a seal between worlds – when it is removed, the water from the deep flows and is gathered in affirmation and blessing of new creative potential. So, too, are we able to spiritually hydrate ourselves and the world when we recognize the wellspring of our unique wisdom we are meant to uncover.
The mystics point out that the Hebrew word in the verse to “roll” – “ויגל” (pronounced vayigal), alludes to the two stages of the counting of the omer. Vayigal can be parsed into the first לג 33 (lamed-gimel)and the second יו 16 (yud-vav) According to this teaching, the counting of the omer supports us in the heavy lifting of the stone that sits on our heart, and all that blocks us from accessing the sacred waters of our unique Torah.
The Midrash observes that there are 48 mentions of wells in the Torah. The Sefas Emes teaches that these mentions of wells are an allusion to the 48 ways that we can acquire the Torah, and that each well provides access to a particular aspect of Divine wisdom. As each well opens a unique aspect of Torah, so, too, do each of us have a portal into the Divine and Her Torah.
Lag B’omer invites us to hillula not simply to the gravesites of our tzadikim and beloved dead, but into a pilgrimage to discover our unique gifts of sacred teaching that is inside of us, waiting to be revealed and shared.
The word “Yisrael” ישראל is an acronym for “There are 600,000 letters in the Torah”, corresponding to the 600,000 roots of all the souls that were at the giving of the Torah.
According to the medieval scholar and mystic Nachmanides, one of God’s many names is the entire Torah – from the first letter “ב” bet of the first word of Genesis to the last letter “ל” lamed of the last word. (Together, these letters combine to make לב- lev – heart). Just as a Torah scroll is not considered kosher if even one letter is missing, so too is humanity considered deficient, a reflection of God and Her Torah lacking, if even one of us is not contributing our one of a kind soul teaching. Lag B’omer reminds us to turn our attention to our particular well and drink from it thirstfully.
As you approach a hillula of the heart this Lag B’omer, what is the stone that is covering your well? Can you taste the spiritually sweat waters within? How do you most want to feel as you drink from them? How can you share and live with them as a communal offering?
Let yourself steep, this holiday, in the possibility that you are a necessary letter in the Divine Name, that your Torah, your wisdom, your embodied knowing and particular approach to the mystery of all that is, is a blessing and an essential element in the optimal expression of this world.
King David, who was born and passes away on Shavuot, writes in the first psalm
כִּ֤י אִ֥ם בְּתוֹרַ֥ת יְהוָ֗ה חֶ֫פְצ֥וֹ וּֽבְתוֹרָת֥וֹ יֶהְגֶּ֗ה יוֹמָ֥ם וָלָֽיְלָה׃
-If a person desires God’s Torah, in one’s own torah they toil day and night. Rashi notices the shift from God’s Torah to the Torah of the individual and explains: at first it is called God’s Torah, and once we work at it, it is called our own Torah.
This speaks to how the vast majority of Jews see the Torah – that Torah is a thing, but not my thing. We are not a part of the present tense proactive delivery of the Torah. Shifting from the Torah of God (a thing) to Torah that is mine, requires the uncovering of the stone and the drawing up of the water.
At the crossroads of innovation and tradition, we celebrate those who came before us by making our own contribution to the Torah of our mothers. We’re all drawing from the same well, but we access different waters.
לָכֵ֤ן ׀ שָׂמַ֣ח לִ֭בִּי וַיָּ֣גֶל כְּבוֹדִ֑י אַף־ בְּ֝שָׂרִ֗י- יִשְׁכֹּ֥ן לָבֶֽטַח
So my heart rejoices, my whole being exults (vayigal) and my body rests secure. “My flesh” בשרי is letters ofרשבי R’SBY Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Psalm 16, verse 9
If you feel that the Torah isn’t speaking in present tense, to our needs, then give her voice. Let her flow and quench the thirst of the people. Like the prophet Amos teaches : “A time is coming—declares my Lord GOD—when I will send a famine upon the land: not a hunger for bread or a thirst for water, but for hearing the words of the LORD.” Be her words. She needs all y’all.
Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is the Scholar-in-Residence for LGBT Studies at CBST.
This article was written amidst creative conversation with Rav Kohenet Taya Shere whose own article on Lag B’omer appears below.
Cultivating Ancestral Connection: A Lag B’omer Invitation
By, Kohenet Taya Sher
“You are the exquisite product of thousands of years of your ancestors best hopes and dreams.” – Belleruth Naparstek
As we journey from the Passover full moon of liberation toward the Shavuot holiday of revelation, we arrive at Lag B’omer, the 33rd day of the omer. Lag B’omer is traditionally honored with bonfires and hillula – festive pilgrimage to the gravesite of tzadikim, or righteous ones – with particular reverence for R’ Shimon Bar Yochai, the second century rabbi who is said to have transmitted the mystical teaching known as the Zohar, and who asked that his students be in grand celebration on the anniversary of his death. Lag B’omer invites celebration of the immense gifts that our greatest teachers bring into our lives, rather than mournful prayer.
Jewish tradition asks us to honor the wisdom of our foremothers and forefathers, and prioritizes practices of ancestral reverence including yahrzeit observance, kaddish recitation, and graveside pilgrimage. Yet systemic oppression, violence & either chosen or forced diaspora along our blood or family lineages has led many of us to experience fracture from these lineages, and from the idea that we can cultivate and tend direct connection with our benevolent ancestors.
While some of us pilgrimage graveside to be amidst the transmission of our teachers, many of us seek ancestral connection closer to home. This Lag B’omer, consider the possibility that we each have loving and wise ancestors who are available to connect with us as a source of blessing, support and healing. Tending these relationships can bring a sense of belonging and optimize our unique gifts as the living face of these lineages.
When we think of ancestors, many of us call to mind our beloved dead – the ones we knew, of whom we have stories and memories. But if these ones are not well in spirit, we may be wise to hold a boundary with them, welcoming connection instead with bright and benevolent ancestral support from further back – toward ancience if needed – on our specific blood or family lineages. We may know nothing from story or genealogy about these ancient ones, but if we understand consciousness to extend beyond the living, well ancestors from much further back may indeed be available to us as a positive resource. Relating directly with bright and benevolent blood & family lineage ancestors, while simultaneously creating boundaries with troubled dead – holding an intention of eventually inviting the well ancestors to support their healing – can be a profound source of support.
This Lag B’omer, consider cultivating and tending your relationship with benevolent ancestors on your particular ancestral lineages. Welcome connection with a righteous ancestor – perhaps one new to you, far beyond remembered stories or names. You might invite this connection by simply sitting in a quiet place and turning your attention simultaneously inward and toward them. Or welcome them through an act of creation. Cook a particular dish, pray a sacred text, or make music or art that you sense may have resonance for a particular lineage. Place a stone – as a memory marker and a portal between worlds – at a spot in nature where you experience peace. This Lag B’omer, give attention to your greatest desires and dreams in relation to your ancestral lines – be it connection, healing, or clearer boundaries – and listen for what comes.
Taya Shere is co-founder of Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute & co-author of The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions for Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership. She teaches multireligious ritual at Starr King School for the Ministry, and is a practitioner of Ancestral Lineage Healing & Somatic Experiencing, working with clients online and near Berkeley, CA. www.jewishancestralhealing.com / www.kohenet.com
This article was written amidst creative conversation with Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, whose own article on Lag B’omer appears above.