The Fire of the Jedi – Lag BaOmer and Star Wars
April 24, 2013 at 12:00 am, by Roni
“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”
Next month (May 25th to be precise) will be the 30th anniversary of the release of Return of the Jedi, and it was one of the movies I watched most often as a child. I cheered on the Rebels and the Ewoks against the evil Empire, I willed Luke to not pick up his lightsaber and turn to the dark side.
But no matter how many times I watched the movie, it’s only now that I realise how much bonfires play important roles important moments in the film.
There are four distinct fires lit on the forest moon of Endor, but what is their unique significance to the movie? And what light can they shed on the bonfire festival of Lag BaOmer that we celebrate this year on Saturday night and Sunday (27-28th April)?
“I’m rather embarrassed, General Solo, but it appears you are to be the main course at a banquet in my honour.”
The first fire is the one that threatens to cook our heroes in a feast held in honour of C3PO. While this threat is more comic than serious, the Ewoks themselves are far from the most threatening of Star Wars’ aliens, it does conjure the idea of the danger of fire that burns and destroys.
Lag BaOmer has this darker side too, as it is supposed to commemorate the deaths of 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students, or rather a celebration to mark the day they stopped dying. And it also has its more playful side, as children ‘play fight’ with bows and arrows, mimicking the actions of shooting and hurting.
“Our cruisers can’t repel firepower of that magnitude” shouts Admiral Ackbar as the supposedly surprise attack on the Death Star goes awry. ‘Firepower’ is the destructive force of the Death Star that threatens all life and all freedom in the galaxy, the essence of fire as bringer of death.
“We are now part of the tribe”
The second bonfire of Return of the Jedi serves a very different purpose, as C3PO tells the assembled tribe of Ewoks the essential plot of the movies so far (with added sound effects) leading to the integration of the main cast into the community. This is a contemplative moment, looking back at how far they have come, the pain they have suffered, all with the knowledge that there is still much more to come.
Lag BaOmer is similarly placed in the Omer, the 49 days of counting between Pesach and Shavuot. This is the 33rd day, over two thirds of the way there, with much joy (Yom Ha’atzmaut) and pain (Yom Hashoah) already endured, yet still with more to do.
Like those sing-a-long campfires on summer camp, bonfires can bond people together, are a natural venue for telling the stories that define who we are and bond us together, strengthening us for the journey we still have to take.
“I’ll not leave you here. I’ve got to save you.”
“You already have, Luke. You already have.”
-Luke Skywalker to Anakin.
Darth Vader turns against his master to save his son. In doing so, he turns from the path of the dark side and is saved from the evil he had chosen in his life. As the movie reaches its finale, the camera focusses on the pyre that Luke has built for his father, and the flames that lick the now empty black armour. Like Obi-Wan and Yoda before him, Anakin Skywalker’s spirit has become one with the force, appearing to Luke in his ghostly form.
The fire of this funeral pyre is both a sign of mourning and of release, as Luke remembers the man who was his father and the outward shell that was Darth Vader’s fearsome appearance. Darth Vader is dead but Anakin Skywalker goes on living forever.
Traditionally, Jews do not cremate their dead, but we have an echo of this in the tradition of Lag BaOmer as the day of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s death, the great 1st century sage and mythic author of the Zohar. The fires of this day are not literally Rabbi Shimon’s funerary rites, but metaphorically they also mark the transition between this world and the next, the loss of the physical and the transformation into the eternal.
The shell of the body is here, but it is empty – we feel the spirit live on.
-Ewok Celebration Song
Finally there is the fire of pure joy and celebration, as the Ewoks and the rebels dance together at the defeat of the Emperor and the Death Star. The battle has been won, and while the war may be far from over – after all, would the entire Galactic Empire simply collapse without the Emperor? – but it is a victory, and that is reason enough to be happy.
Lag BaOmer is an expression of this kind of joy. Many couples choose to get married on this day, as the traditional rituals of mourning that are observed in the omer are suspended, including listening to music.
The world is a place of great danger, a fire that burns and consumes. None of us make it out of here alive.
But we are alive here today, in the middle of our journey from slavery to freedom, bound together as a people by our collective stories, our suffering and our triumphs.
We know that while we mourn for all that we’ve lost, that nothing is truly lost forever. Whether a memory or a spirit, something remains.
And so we light our bonfires, play music, and sing with joy.
Roni Tabick is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. You can read more of his work here: www.mythicwriting.blogspot.com. Or follow him on twitter: www.twitter.com/rtabick