As we approach Lag Ba’omer, a time of national celebration on the Yahrzeit of Rebi Shimon Bar Yochai the author of the Zohar, it would be worthwhile revisiting the section of the Talmud that forms the backdrop to deepen our appreciation of Rashbi and Lag Ba’omer.
The Talmud (Shabbat 33b) records a discussion of our sages as to the impact of Rome’s rule over Israel.
- Yehuda praised the Romans for the improvements to society they had developed building marketplaces, bridges and bathhouses. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi) on the other hand, categorically denied any possible benefit of the Roman occupation and exile.
- Shimon, together with his son R. Elazar hid from the Romans in a cave for twelve years. G-d miraculously caused a carob tree to grow and a stream to flow right outside the cave, providing the two with basic sustenance. It was in this holy context that Rashbi and his son Rebi Eliezer became proficient in the mystical work the kabbalah.
When Rashbi and his son R’ Elazar emerged from the cave, they were shocked at the sight of people engaged in mundane everyday matters. Every place they cast their eyes was set aflame by them. A heavenly voice proclaimed “I did not release you from the cave to destroy My world return to the cave”
A year later they again left the cave this time wherever R Elazar set his gaze was once again set afire, but Rashbi was able to mend the damage with his gaze. The final puzzling aspect in this episode was the fact they were consoled by seeing an old man carrying supplies for the Shabbat. Rabbi Shimon turned to his son and said, “Now I see the power of a Jew and his mitzvot” — Shabbat is a day within the physical world that bridges the gap to the transcendent dimension. On Shabbat, even the most physical pursuits — whether a delicious meal or an afternoon nap – carries with it a special degree of holiness
Rav Kook offered a beautiful explanation to this whole episode and sheds fresh light. Reb Yehudah and Rashbi represented two diametrically opposed approaches to the jews in exile and to achieving redemption yet both are necessary.
Reb Yehudah whilst recognizing that the Jewish people were cast into exile and darkness following the destruction by the Romans of the temple yet he felt they had to adjust to the new reality and it would ease the difficulty for the exile seeing the positives that the exile presented and thus he noted the roman bridges etc
Rebi Shimon fiercely opposed such an approach. He argued that the jews couldn’t embrace in any shape or form the exile as an acceptable new reality to do so would be counterproductive and an acceptance of the world imperfect state as opposed to the goal being tikun redemption.
This radical viewpoint existed from the inception of our nation, Moshe was brought up not within the shackles of Egyptian servitude and slave mentality but was removed from it in the palace of pharaoh his unwillingness to recognize exile as the new reality was reflected in his reluctance to negotiate with pharaoh over the release from exile of our people. Rebi Shjmon was in the guise of Moshe never engaging in the reality of exile.
Initially, Rashbi and his son emerged from the cave which was a microcosm of redemption, wherever he saw people engaging in the Roman society the Talmud says they set their eyes on them and burnt them Rav Kook takes a nonliteral approach and suggests burning refers to Rashbi seering the entrenched exile mentality that they had formed from their consciousness. This approach was criticized yet a year later on emerging Reb Eleizer continues to burn but Rashbi then mends. Rav Kook suggests they emerge from the cave with a fresh understanding as to the key to unlock the dark exile. The approach is a synthesis of their philosophy. On the one hand, Reb eleiezer maintaining his stance is essential, there is a need during a long exile for leaders to be exhorting the people that they should not become comfortable and accept the exile as the norm. for if they do they will never long or achieve redemption. Conversely Reb Shimon’s new position of recognizing the reality of the exile the people are experiencing means that one encourages them and gives them hope by recognizing any positives they are experiencing
The stance although paradoxical yet it is precisely this delicate balance which they recognize as the way forward for the Jewish people. At the end of the story, Rashbi is comforted by seeing an old man holding two bundles of myrtle for Shabbat. The two bundles symbolized the two aspects of Shabbat that of remembrance and guarding the Shabbat. Shabbat means redemption from the mundane to the sublime from exile to redemption. The remembrance aspect of the Shabbat lingers and we carry it with us throughout the week.
A second approach to this episode is offered by Rav Leff shlita. He poses two questions on this episode. Firstly it would seem that their twelve years of isolation and immersion in learning had been detrimental, causing them to be overly critical of other people not on their level if so why did G-d sending them back into the cave for another year it would seem to be counterproductive? Secondly, R’Elazar even after his emergence from the cave continued to destroy with his gaze if so why wasn’t he returned to the cave?
A person that is overly critical is not symptomatic of having learned too much but rather having not learned enough. A person that is overly negative and critical signals an inability to properly evaluate a situation.
To properly function one needs a balanced perspective to life, seeing the good as well as the areas that require improvement. Rashbi and his son worked together as one unit, one using his eyes to highlight the negatives and the other to apply a healing eye. A world viewed through rose-tinted glasses prevents improvement and growth, whilst a world with unmitigated negativity is damaging and debilitating.
There emerges from this episode two important principles which are in fact two halves of the whole. Firstly on a national level, it is incumbent for us to strike the balance between seeing the glimmer of light that enables us to fumble through the darkness of exile. At the same time, we should have a constant awareness that we are in exile and remain uncomfortable with this as a reality.
Secondly, in terms of us as individuals, we equally need to ensure we are in equilibrium recognizing our failings and areas requiring improvement on the one hand whilst recognizing our successes and accomplishments on the other.
Through integrating these two approaches may we merit to usher at the end of this long exile and the ultimate redemption speedily in our times.