[Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son] lived in the cave for 12 years. Elijah came and stood at the entrance to the cave, and said: Who will tell bar Yochai that the Caesar has died and the persecution ended? They emerged and saw people plowing and planting. He said: These people are abandoning eternal life for the life of the moment! And every place they looked was burned up immediately. A heavenly voice called: You are destroying my world! Go back to your cave!
-Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 33b
Rabbi Shimon fled to the cave to escape a death sentence for publicly criticizing Roman culture. According to folk tradition, during his twelve years of isolation, he engaged in mystical meditation and wrote the Zohar, the central work of Kabbalah. You can see the cave, and the spring from which he and his son drank, and the carob trees that fed them, in the Galilean village of Peki'in. A few miles away, you can visit his grave in the small village of Meiron. According to tradition, he died on Lag B'omer, the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer between Pesach and Shavuot. And he left orders that people mark the anniversary of his death by rejoicing in the light (of Kabbalah) that he brought to the world. That is the origin of the custom of making a pilgrimage to Meiron on Lag B'omer, to celebrate.
I have joined this pilgrimage several times over the years, since my first visit as a curious teenager. This year I went again, with a small group of British gap-year students. We started on top of Mt. Meiron, the highest mountain in Israel (until we conquered Mt. Hermon in the Golan), where we could look down on the hundreds of buses lined up to shuttle pilgrims to and from the site, as the highway was closed in the area. The descent, a two-hour hike, was magnificent - a perfect day, natural oak forests fragrant with the bloom of Spanish broom. We met a total of six other hikers. And then we rounded the bend into the outskirts of Meiron and encountered a couple of boys of about nine, with long sidelocks, carrying home-made bows and arrows, speaking Yiddish. We knew we had arrived; a few hundred yards farther on we encountered the other 300,000 people (or 500,000, depending on which estimate you believe) who had come to celebrate at Rabbi Shimon's tomb. The custom of celebrating at tombs was common among Moroccan Jews; the attachment to the Zohar is significant in Hasidism. Therefore, this was a multicultural crowd, east and west. The women reported that in their section of the tomb complex there was a lot of intense praying and crying. I can report that on the men's side, the trip into and out of the inner room, through narrow passageways and courtyards packed with dancing men, was a bit frightening, as I recalled news reports about the casualties from crushing in stampedes at rock concerts and soccer games. At several points we just lost control and were pushed along by the crush of bodies into the inner chamber. I personally didn't really have the spiritual wherewithal to actually offer any kind of prayer there except to be granted a safe exit. Which I was. We then reconvened and strolled down through the village, walking on about a two-inch layer of fresh garbage on the street, past beggars, people distributing free kugel, and others selling candles, blessings, miracles, and ice cream. When we got to the highway, the shuttle bus system was very well organized, as those hundreds of buses we had seen from above were lined up at well marked boarding points, departing frequently to various remote parking lots.
Herzl imagined the Jewish State as a kind of fin-de-siecle Vienna on the Mediterranean. Good thing he didn't live to see what became of his vision. When we get carried away with our own visions of modern or post-modern high-tech Israel, it's good to come to Meiron for a bit of a reality check.
Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah and Galilee Diary.