We were sitting in the audience watching a Chanukah skit. The kids were re-enacting the battles the Maccabees fought against the Greeks, when the father of one of the students turned to me and said: “Boy, you people never forget.”
You know what? He was right. (Although he had a very edgy appreciation of our collective memory).
“Jewish history has … been filled with disasters; memorializing (them) has always been a ritual,” wrote Amos Elon in the book, The Israelis: Founders and Sons. “Memory,” Thomas W. Laqueur wrote in The Work of the Dead, “erases time.”
That certainly is the case with Jewish festivals. “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat” is the waggish description of many Jewish celebrations. We remember the escape from Egypt, the triumph of the Maccabees, the destruction of both Temples and Jewish kingdoms, the kingship of David (talk about fraught!) and the promise of a messianic saviour era, over and over again.
But the memory of an event is not the same as the actual history (see Y.H. Yerushalmi’s Zakor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory for the complete argument).
Now to Lag b’Omer: In ancient Israel, the health or failure of crops during these weeks of the Omer was a matter of abundance or scarcity; of health or dearth for the coming year. Hence, great rejoicing when the barley crop was harvested. Counting the Omer was perhaps a way of whistling past the graveyard; of keeping one’s spirits up until a healthy crop was gathered in.
Lag b’Omer reminds us of some sin committed during the unfortunate Bar Kochba uprising, a catastrophe that engulfed Israel a mere 70 or so years after the Temple’s fiery demise. It memorializes the cessation of a plague that supposedly killed 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva in the fortress of Betar, where Bar Kochba made his last stand against the Romans. Lag b’Omer became a “scholar’s holiday,” in memory of that event.
How does the memory of that time interact with the actual history?
We can offer at least two responses. One is to assert that the Jewish state fell in blood and fire, so it could be reborn. From that argument followed a series of bloody deeds as the state came into being, and the continued belief that only through more and more blood can it be sustained.
Another is to recall the descriptions given to us by the sages. Was Bar Kochba a tyrant or a messiah? Akiva thought he was the “king messiah,” according to Midrash Rabbah on Lamentations, which includes a description of Bar Kochba’s mighty strength. On the other hand, goes another midrash, he lost the war when he killed Rabbi Eleazer of Modin. Bar Kochba thought the rabbi was betraying them to the Romans.
And why did the students of Akiva die of a plague? Because they did not respect each other? That’s memory at work.
The actual history of the revolt seems much darker: a senseless uprising fuelled by messianic expectations; a dire ending that decimated the region of Judea for decades; a leader whose personal charisma deluded even the greatest of scholars. In early modern Israel, the day became a time to celebrate the victory of Bar Kochba (ignoring, of course, his ultimate defeat).
Looking at the pictures of Betar in Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin’s book on the excavation of the caves where people took refuge, it is clear that 24,000 students, plus soldiers and their families, could not have fit into that citadel. The people certainly could have been stricken by a plague as the Romans closed in. But in such numbers? It is unlikely. Nor was this revolt universally accepted by the Jews of that time, and it’s likely many opted to stay out of the fighting.
Why did they fight? Was it a need for a messianic figure who would make their troubles go away; who would return the lost kingdom of Judea and topple their enemies?
Beware of messiahs.