Lag B'Omer, the 33rd day between the second night of Passover and Shavuot, this year beginning at sundown Wednesday, May 5, is a holiday. During this period, we count each day with a special blessing to prepare for the revelation of Torah on Shavuot (beginning May 23 at sundown). Because the Omer is considered a semi-mourning period, among traditional communities, most public celebrations are not held during the counting time, except on Lag B'Omer.
Lag B'Omer is deeply connected to the great mystic sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who, according to tradition, revealed the Zohar - a core text of Jewish mysticism - from the cave where he and his son hid from the 1st century Romans who wished to execute them. Here, can you hear echoes of other sacred stories, such as the Prophet Mohammed's (pbuh) first revelation of the Holy Quran in the cave of Hira, Elijah's transformation in the cave of Carmel described in Melachim (1 Kings 19), and at least in some versions, Patanjali's composition of parts of the Yoga Sutras in a cave in Tamil Nadu. All three of these caves are major pilgrimage sites to this day.
It would be nice to explore the symbol of caves more deeply. Most symbologists agree that, at the least, the image of the cave is connected to the image of the womb. So let's go with that.
The womb-cave held these holy souls in such safety and nuturance that they were open to the kind of wisdom and revelation that these texts represent.
In any event, back to Lag B'Omer. There are several lovely customs associated with the holiday: picnics, beach bonfires at night, releasing the pent up celebratory energy from before Passover. Here's one thing Chabad.org says about the custom of playing with bows and arrows on this holiday:
Children customarily go out into the fields and play with imitation bows and arrows. This commemorates the midrashic tradition that no rainbow was seen during Rabbi Shimon’s lifetime. Rainbows first appeared after Noah’s flood, when G‑d promised to never again devastate the world. When the world is deserving of punishment, G‑d sends a rainbow instead. Rabbi Shimon’s merit protected the world, rendering the rainbow superfluous.I'm not in love with this way of looking at rainbows, that they are symbols G-d uses them to convey displeasure, as if they are a warning. I cannot believe something so beautiful, which occurs on the liminal edge of light and water, could be a negative. Further still, as an LGBTQ ally, I think rainbows are awesome.
So, here's another thought: Perhaps, through Rabbi Shimon's merit, rainbows were transformed. Maybe instead of being a sign of unrighteousness (think Noah story), in Sefer Chasidim we are taught that a particularly wonderful rainbow will appear when we have repaired the world, called "the time of the coming of the Messiah." According to Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis and his fabulous book The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism, rainbows are a Divine Female trope, along with queen, apple, orchard and moon. [Read his great great essay on the Divine Feminine for Mother's Day!]
So let's ride the wave of symbolic transformation this Lag B'Omer. Through the merit of Rabbi Shimon, when, according to tradition, the Holy One sends a rainbow only if the world is "deserving of punishment", let's see the rainbow as an invitation into the Divine Feminine, an ephemeral call to our highest selves, the selves of kindness and justice, who can embrace the diversity and messiness of the world with the compassion of a mother, holding all being in a womb-like embrace of potential and creativity, opening ever toward the light.