Why do we light bonfires on Lag Baomer? As far as I know, it is the anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. So why would the death of a great second century rabbi be the cause for celebration around a fire?
There is a Jewish custom to light a candle on the anniversary of a death. This is to symbolize that their light still shines, their impact on us continues beyond the grave.
But for a soul like Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a candle is not enough. To fully express the impact he is still having on the world, we don't light a candle in his honour but rather we light a huge bonfire. For his fiery soul created a spiritual light that illuminates the world still today, almost two thousand years after his death.
Rabbi Shimon wrote the Zohar, which was the first comprehensive work of Kabbalah ever committed to writing. Until then, the mystical teachings of Judaism were passed down by word of mouth from teacher to student in secret societies. Rabbi Shimon saw that these teachings needed to be preserved for future generations, and so he had them recorded. "One day," Rabbi Shimon predicted, "even young children will be studying these secrets."
That day has come. Even young children, whether children in years or in spiritual maturity, are seeking inner truth, a deeper view of reality and a true soul connection. If they don't find it at home, they will look somewhere else. So many of our brothers and sisters end up searching in foreign spiritualities for something they can find in their own tradition. It just has to be made available. That's what Rabbi Shimon taught.
The only way Judaism can survive today is when its inner light is revealed. The modern Jew does not go for dogmatic teachings, empty ritual or dry intellectualism. Today's seekers want the essence. They want a Judaism that is soulful and joyous, relevant and inspiring, warm and dynamic. This is the light of Kabbalah.
So the fire of Rabbi Shimon is drawing those floating sparks back to their source. The teachings of Kabbalah, especially as they have been brought down to earth through Chasidism, are lighting up lost souls today more than ever. All because of one holy soul, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
I am going to visit my grandmother's grave, and was planning to buy a bunch of her favourite flowers. But I have noticed that Jewish graves don't have bouquets, only stones laid on them. Is there anything wrong with placing flowers on a grave?
The custom to place a stone on a grave is an ancient one. By doing so we are symbolically adding to the gravestone, building up the monument that honours the departed. Placing flowers on a grave is not our custom.
Flowers wither and die. Stones remain unchanged. While flowers are a beautiful gift to the living, they mean nothing to the dead. In death, the body which is ephemeral and temporary is gone, and all that remains is that eternal part of the person, their soul. The body, like a flower, blossoms and then fades away, but the soul, like a solid stone, lives on forever.
In the world of truth, the place we all go after life on earth, what counts is the lasting impact we had on the world. It is the achievements of the soul, not of the body, that remain beyond the grave. The money we make, the holidays we go on, the food we eat and the games we play - these are all flowers that die along with us. But the good deeds we do, the love we show to others, the light we bring to the world, these are eternal stones that never die.
If you want to honour your grandmother, take the money you would have spent on flowers for her and give it to charity in her memory. And take a modest stone that cost you nothing, and place it on her grave, to tell her that though she is gone, the impact she had on you is everlasting.
SPECIAL GUEST LECTURE TOMORROW (WEDNESDAY APRIL 21)
with Rabbi Lazer Brody
8pm at Nefesh, 54 Roscoe St Bondi Beach
Rabbi Lazer Brody is a unique and charismatic Breslev Rabbi, committed to helping people of all backgrounds discover their hidden strengths and potential. A former commando of an elite IDF infantry reconnaissance unit, Rabbi Brody is a remarkable spiritual guide who has succeeded in leading tens of thousands of people from around the world down the path of true happiness and tranquility.
A friend recently lost his father, but I haven't gone to visit. I have all types of excuses, like maybe he wants to be left alone, and I'm not so close anyway, but the real reason is, I just don't know what to say in these situations. What can I possibly say to make him feel better when the fact is that his dad died?
Your hesitation to face a grieving friend is understandable. But it is based on a wrong assumption.
When we visit one who is in grief, we often assume that we have to become philosophers, and present a profound thesis to explain their loss, or we feel we should become counsellors, and try to soothe their pain.
That is not true. Your job is not to play the theologian or the therapist. Your job is to be a friend, and just be there. Your very presence, the fact that you made the effort to show your face, is a comfort to the mourners. It means that they are not alone in their sorrow.
Jewish tradition says that when you visit a mourner, you should stay silent and wait for the mourner to initiate the conversation. They may want to laugh, they may want to cry, or they may want to sit in silence. Let them set the tone, and respond accordingly. And when they seem to want to be left alone, then take the hint and leave. Don't assume anything, take the cues from them.
If you have some words of comfort and wisdom to share, then do so. But if you have nothing to say then that's fine too. The purpose of the visit is to show your support, and you have done so just by being there. Your presence is more powerful than words. The philosopher's explanations may help us understand pain, but the presence of a friend can help us endure it. Words can bring comfort to the mind, but the heart is comforted by simple togetherness, knowing that you are not alone.