Bar Kochba, leader of the revolt against Rome, the one many thought was the Messiah, lost the battle against the Roman Empire. More bloodshed. More exile. More evil decrees against the Jews.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, however, continued to defy the Roman rulers even after the defeat. And so he was forced to flee for his life. He and his son Eleazar fled to a cave, their clothes on their backs and their Torah knowledge being their only possessions. To leave the cave was out of the question, Roman soldiers were everywhere. To visit them was equally impossible. So Shimon and Eleazar had to rely on what the cave would provide them. They needed food, and a beautiful carob tree fed by a well of fresh spring water grew in the middle of the cave. This is how they knew that their stay in the cave was divinely ordained, and that their experience had a purpose.
Thirteen years, Rabbi Shimon and Eleazar were sustained by this miraculous tree and well. They were also sustained by their knowledge of Torah. Hours of prayer and meditation opened Rabbi Shimon’s mind. Great secrets were revealed to him.
Thirteen years later, Rabbi Shimon emerged from the cave, on the 18th day of Iyar, the 33rd day after Pesach. On that day, he shared the Zohar to the world, the Jewish legacy of mysticism. Rabbi Shimon was so happy that he called it a “day of my joy”, filled with beautiful light. His soul, having accomplished its earthly purpose, went up to its Creator.
And so, every year, 33 days after the Seder, we gather in great joy around bonfires. The flames of Shabbat and holidays are transformed in roaring fires, as if to dispel darkness in the world.
“A group of people approached a Rabbi and asked him how they could drive out darkness and evil from the world. He suggested that they take brooms into a nearby cellar and sweep away the darkness. When that didn’t work, they returned to the Rabbi for another suggestion. This time he told them to take sticks and beat at the darkness to drive out evil. This too did not work. Then the Rabbi suggested something much simpler. To overwhelm the challenge of darkness, we need only to light a candle. They took his advice, descended to the cellar, lit candles and the darkness vanished.”
Remember, everyday, Darkness must be transformed into Light. Bonfires will accomplish just that, but sometimes brooms and sticks are needed to help sweep and beat away the darkness. Human Rights, poverty, BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, the movement against Israel): darkness can come in many forms and any positive act in this physical world will help. The Ethics of our Fathers teach: “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirke Avot 2:21). If we all contribute our small flame to a cause, a beautiful bonfire will emerge to banish darkness.