by Marc Gafni
The biblical myth archetypes associated with the ultimate unitive consciousness found in the Temple’s Holy of Holies are Nadab and Abihu. They are the sons of High Priest Aaron. The high priest is the paradigm of love. His sons inherit his lover’s passion and seek death in ecstasy; to merge with God – Unio Mystica. They do so by entering the Holy of Holies, where the apparent distinction between death and life is overwhelmed. They are consumed along with their incense offering. Yet the biblical myth rejects their self-sacrifice, insisting instead on the primacy of the ethical over the erotic.
It is only the Hero of the Zohar, Simeon Bar Yochai, 1800 years later, who brings the Nadab and Abihu archetypes back into biblical myth consciousness as a genuine possibility. It is he who reclaims the radically erotic moment of ecstatic death as a legitimate moment, if not to be emulated, at least to inform the consciousness of the people. In the tradition of the Zohar, Bar Yochai dies on the day called “Lag Ba’Omer.” A day which came to be known as “Bar Yochai’s wedding day.”
Yochai dies in ecstasy. The last Torah that he teaches from this place of undifferentiated ecstasy is – not surprisingly at this point – a teaching on the mystical significance of the ark in the Holy of Holies. In the midst of this teaching he expires in ecstasy.
All this takes place only a few short years after the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem. Although the anniversary of the passing of a great sage often occasions a day of celebration, the rabbinic establishment refused to institute Lag B’Omer as a holiday. They felt that it would fundamentally undermine the ethical enterprise of law which they were developing to replace ecstatic Temple consciousness.
Lag Ba’Omer nonetheless becomes a major Hebrew holiday. It is instituted spontaneously by the people’s embrace. It is marked with bonfires, trance-like tribal dancing – neither of which are anywhere legislated in the legal sources of the Talmud; yet these folk customs remain in full force until today. You can go to the Galille in Israel in 2003 and witness the bonfire and almost crazed ecstasy of the day. For the dance and the leaping fire express the undulating passion for erotic union with the divine that Simeon Bar Yochai personified in his life and death.
Expensive garments are thrown into the fire. One year, I saw a friend of mine burning a priceless antique armoire in a Lag B’Omer bonfire. My wife nearly jumped in to the fire to retrieve the treasure, but my friend said that his great aunt had requested in her will that it be “used as kindling for Lag B’Omer.”
The legal authorities object such acts, saying it is a violation of (Baal Tashchit), the biblical commandment against frivolous waste. The people, however, override the scholars. Ecstasy overrides law. Valuables are burned as a protest against a world of boundaries, competition and obsessive material accumulation.
Bar Yochai is the folk saint who dared to say no to the drabness and compromises of this world. He dared to reach for God and die in mystical entwinement with the divine.
The Hebrew myth however could not formally approve of this mystical moment which so overwhelmed distinctions. Only if death is opposed, will an ethical world unfold. Suicide of any kind must be formally deemed a sin. Every year, month and even day of life is of infinite value. The battle against sickness and suffering is the great mandate of the prophets. Every human life is of infinite worth, value and dignity and all must be done to save even a single life. And yet, the consciousness of the Holy of Holies softens the edges of the opposition between life and death. This is what allows death, when it must come, to be greeted by great peace and joy. Lag B’Omer is the one day in the year where we are allowed entry into that portal of unitive consciousness that stands poised so precariously on the brink of life and death. On this day we celebrate the ecstasy amidst the flames, the wedding with the divine.
presented by Marc Gafni