Lag B’Omer: Flames of Joy Reaching for the Heavens

Flame Tree - portrait

The first time I saw this tree was in Tel Aviv, and it stopped me in my tracks. I saw it at the beginning of Carmel Street, where it crosses Allenby and where the famous Shuk haCarmel – the Carmel market – starts its lengthy, narrow course. With its giant, bright red clusters of flowers, it seemed to be a symbol of bounty and unabashed sensuality. Nature here in Israel is like that: it doesn’t hold back. It takes joy in its own sensuousness, and it invites everybody else to do the same.

Then I saw it again – two of them, actually – in front of Tel Aviv’s Museum of Art, and they were even more textured, more bright, more voluptuous. A Facebook query to friends revealed that its name is a Flame Tree. Apparently, it grows in the U.S. – abundantly so. But to me, this tree will forever be associated with Israel – not in the least because I met and became besotted with it right on the eve of Lag B’Omer – the 33rd day of the counting of Omer, a Kabbalistic holiday which is celebrated around the flames of bonfires, with music and dancing. And for the particularly devout, the celebrations include pilgrimages to the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, who is believed to have received and recorded Kabbalah’s most sacred text, the Zohar, and is buried on Mount Meron just outside of Tzfat.

In the many commentaries on Lag B’Omer that I’ve seen, almost no one mentions the special quality of this day that likely made Kabbalists celebrate it in the first day. This is the day of Hod she b’Hod. 

Danny Cohen, a Jerusalem-based meditation teacher, founder of The Living Heart and a founding director of Or HaLev, wrote in this weeks’ newsletter that “Hod is the release, the way fire releases the pent-up potential energy, so too may we get in touch with the fire in us and let go of what’s keeping us from being aflame with the aliveness of the Divine coursing through us, as us.”

In Dr. Jay McCrensky’s interpretation, the sefira of Hod refers to emotional energy that we need in order to pursue our purpose (Netzach), for without the fire of emotion, our motivation will quickly run dry.

In his understanding, the particular energetic focus of Hod is joy – the ultimate emotion associated with the Divine. Those who have traveled the path of mystery have come back to share with us that joy permeates every bit of creation – every molecule of being, every particle of our souls. That is why our liturgy is filled to the brim with those other words for joy – sasson and simcha.

And so Hod within Hod can be viewed as the essence of joy – an emotion that raises us above our mundane circumstances and causes us to reach higher. Just like the flames of the bonfires that we light on this day leap into the air toward the heavens, we get to experience the uplifting energy of joy that brings us ever closer to the ultimate revelation of Shavuot. It is no wonder that Kabbalists celebrated this day with music and that it is considered an auspicious day for weddings – the ultimate joyful occasions.

In excess, too much joy, just like uncontrolled fire, can burn, and those who have tried to reach the Divine too quickly, without the necessary preparation, have, in fact, burned themselves. But the beauty of the Kabbalistic system is that its ultimate expression is balance. When we reach for the Heaven while remaining fully grounded in the physical life here on earth, we fulfill the Kabbalistic vision of being the link between the two realms. But on this special day, we can allow ourselves to experience joy within joy: to feel the heat of the flame within us, to allow ourselves to shine brightly, and to be the purest of pure lights on to the world.

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