The circle of men whirls around the fire, hand in hand, hand catching hand, drawing in newcomers into the ring that races around and around in the growing darkness. A melody thumps through the speakers teetering unevenly with the bass, the sound is both old and new, a mix of the past and the present, like the participants in the dance, the traditional garments mixing with jeans and t-shirts until it is all a blur.
It is Lag BaOmer, an obscure holiday to most, even to those who come to the fires. The remnants of the Jewish Revolt against the might of the Roman Empire are remembered as days of deprivation in memory of the thousands of students dying in the war, until the thirty-third day of the Biblical Omer, part of the way between Passover and Shavuot, the day when Jerusalem was liberated.
Deprived of music for weeks, it rolls back in waves through speakers, from horns blown by children and a makeshift drum echoing an ancient celebration when men danced around fires and shot arrows into the air. The fires and bows have remained a part of Lag BaOmer, even when hardly anyone remembers the true reason for them.
The new Yom Yerushalayim, the day of the liberation of the city, is coming up soon, but the old Yom Yerushalaim, came thousands of years ago and ten days before it on the calendar. Time is a wheel, and, like a circle, everything comes around again. Hands pulling on hands, years pulling on years, on and on like the orbits of planets and stars. The Divine Hand of G-d pulls us along, and we pull each other in the dance of life.
The circle speeds up, men racing faster and faster, the children left behind, as the flames sputter and night falls. The rebellion, although bravely fought, failed, and Jerusalem fell again, and then Betar. The joy of the celebration turned to ashes, but, even in the shadow of the empire, their spirit endured. The stories were changed a little, the rebellion encoded into a story of Rabbi Akiva, the pivotal scholarly figure in the war, and of his students who perished because they had not been able to get along with one another. The failure of unity had been the underlying reason for the Roman conquest and the Jewish defeats. It is the ancient lesson still unlearned that the circle of the dance teaches us.
Lag BaOmer is not the first Jewish story of physically and spiritual heroism to be encoded for fear of the enemy. There is much that we know, without knowing what it truly means, messages from the past, that exist only as echoes reminding us of our purpose. Few of those in the circle passing around the flame know what they are truly commemorating and yet the act is its own commemoration. Thousands of years later the echo of a fierce joy, the pride of a people emerging out of a momentary darkness in a burst of wild energy, is still here. Though the details are forgotten, the joy endures, the song is sung and the fire still burns.
In the darkness, there is nothing but the fire and the dark shapes racing around it, leaping with the guttering flames. A teenager pours oil on the flames and they rise higher and higher. A new song begins but they are all the same song. Even the new songs are old. The music changes, but the words remain the same. Arms rise and fall, feet kick and the participants run around the fire only to end up right back where they began.
Codemaking is a dangerous business, for the keys to the code can be forgotten. In Spain and in the American Southwest there are men and women who keep odd rituals, but who no longer remember that the reason they keep them is because they are descended from Jewish Conversos. They have lost the most important part of the code, the part that explains everything. The men dancing around the fire have not lost that. They may not remember the liberation of Jerusalem, but their feet remember it, their arms remember it, their hearts remember it and most of all they remember who they are. They retain the key to the entire code. They remember that they are Jews.
It all began with fire. Avraham was cast into the fire and emerged alive from the flames. Then Chananya, Mishael and Azariah. And then millions more turning to ash in the ovens only to rise again in a new generation. “Is not this man a brand plucked out of the fire,” G-d asks Satan in the vision of the Prophet Zechariah. “But who may abide the day of his coming?” the Prophet Malachi says.”And who shall stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire.”
A piece of heavy wood chars, bright sparks rising into the night air. It is cool outside the ring of fire, but here it is painfully hot, the air thick with heat. The children gaze wonderingly at the sparks, flying up like tiny stars, their eyes recording the memory with a purer fidelity than any of the cameras outside the circle. Their minds will record the memory of the light, the feel of it on their skin and the awe of seeing something new for the first time. They will remember the circle and the fire.
The story of Moloch is the tale of men who worshiped the fire with the bodies of their children. But the children who race around the margins of this fire are the survivors of the servants of Moloch who tried to thrust their grandfathers and great-grandfathers into the flames. They will grow running around the flames from those who wish to thrust them into the fire, to burn away all that they are. Some will die, killed by Muslim terrorists or by other modern day servants of Moloch, but others will survive, and one day their children will race around the flames, defying the worshipers of fire, the worshipers of death, to do their worst to them.
The fire blazes up, tongues of flame darting toward us like the tongues of lions. This is the race we run around the flames that always burn, whether we see them or not. Year after year, generation after generation, and century after century, the fire burns, but we go on and no matter how many of us burn, we continue running the race with the flames, outpacing it, outlasting it and outliving it. No matter how many of us die, we still live.
A Talmudic recollection bemoans the Zoroastrian persecutions of the Jews. The notion today is as quaint as Assyrian chariots and Roman legions. The day will come when the Islamic persecutions are as obscure and laughable. When all the desert sands have covered over Mecca and the might and power of Islam are one with Assyria and Rome, with ancient pagan religions that have come and gone, blazing brightly like the flames, only to go out into the darkness, the dance will continue.
The men slow their steps, an ancient movement that the first wave of settlers to the Holy Land instinctively recreated. Dancing is a key that unlocks secret knowledge, that opens up buried memories, that turns the wheel of time back until it all becomes a circle that comes alive when it is closed. Despite the tremendous variations in customs and appearances, they have all unlocked the code of the circle, the hand to hand connection, the knowledge that whatever else we must go on. That the Jewish people must live.
The Bar Kochba revolt was not the last time that Jews fought to liberate their land. It was not the last time that the gates of Jerusalem were thrown open to a Jewish army. The liberation of Jerusalem in 1967 was the fulfillment of a struggle that had been going on for nearly two thousand years, as empires and caliphates had claimed the land, planted their spears and rifles over its barren hills, and enforced their laws upon it. And if Jerusalem falls again, if Masada falls again, if we fall into the fire, then we will rise out of it again, less in number, less in memory, but still a circle.
Fresh from battle, the soldiers danced around the flames. They had defeated the legions of Rome, without any special training and with poor equipment, they had beaten the greatest army in the world. They had survived the flames and in an explosion of joy, they raced around the celebratory fires, tasting the momentary immortality of battle. Their names are forgotten, lost to memory. Lag BaOmer is associated now with two of Rome’s scholarly opponents, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who passed on the teachings and traditions that kept the circle intact even in the fire.
Wars are won and lost all the time. No victory, however significant, endures forever. There is no immortality in the victories of the flesh, only in the triumphs of the spirit. For all our losses, this circle is a victory, an ancient celebration of a spiritual triumph kept secret in the face of the enemy. The circle of clasped hands reminds us that against the dead hand of history, we have a Living Hand that guides us even in our darkest hours, in the smoke and flame, in the ash and fire.
“Know that your descendants will be strangers in a land not their own,” G-d tells Avraham, as the sun goes down, and amid a thick darkness, a smoking furnace and a flaming torches passes between the parted pieces of the covenant. There is smoke and fire, a thick darkness, but as each hand in the circle clasps another, the pieces are joined together into one. The unity will not last. But it is a reminder of who we can be and who we should be when we join together. A reminder of the covenant with G-d and with one another.
The dance is difficult, not because it is hard to learn or do, but because it is tiring. Some fall out of the circle, but others join in. It is a mistake to dwell too much on how many come and how many go. To count the losses, while overlooking the gains. We were never meant to be a numerous people, to swell to an empire, rotten with corruption, choking on its own grossness, until it dies. It is easier to win the race with the flames when you are small and light on your feet. Some tire of the race and leave, and fall into the flames or the darkness and are gone. But we go on. We always go on.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Sultan Knish