Putting out fires

Rabbi Shimon b. Yochai and his son dwelled twelve years in the cave. … upon exiting they saw people plowing and sowing [their fields.] They proclaimed, [these people] are engaged in matters of this world and abandoning the world to come. Everywhere they glared erupted in flame.   A Divine voice called out to them, “have you come out of the cave to destroy my world? Return to your cave.” (Shabbat 33a)

This week we commemorated the cessation of the plague which, according to tradition, afflicted the thousands of students of Rabbi Akiva. The great rabbi’s students died because, says the Talmud, they didn’t treat each other honorably “shelo nahagu kavod ze lazeh.” (Yevamot 62b) Over time and for various reasons, the Jewish people began to celebrate the life of Rabbi Shimon b. Yochai on this day as well. Perhaps besides lighting fires throughout the country, now might be an appropriate season to reflect on increasing respect for others. It is painful to see the opposite taking place.

This week, a respected rabbi claimed in a public discourse that one of the most influential Charedi rabbis called the elected government an enemy of the Jews akin to the Persians and the Greeks; although perhaps not actively calling for violent rebellion against the government, implying that such a bloody rebellion might be appropriate. Following suit, an author on a popular Orthodox blog accused the Ministry of Religion and specifically minister Naftali Bennet of “murder[ing] a person via government fiat.“ The crime?  Checking to see if yeshiva boys, receiving funding from the government, are actually attending classes at the end of the winter session.  Less egregious perhaps, but still disturbing, a popular Orthodox blogger suggested that Israel’s Chief Rabbi, during his visit to the United States, should avoid any contact with a liberal yeshiva and it goes without saying with non-Orthodox Jewish clergy lest the Chief Rabbi give them any form of legitimacy.

One can almost feel the fire burning in the eyes of these rabbis as they emerge from their Ivory tower caves. Do we wonder why we have not merited rebuilding the Temple? Is it not time to say enough?

When Rabbi Shimon b. Yochai emerged the second time from his cave, his son seems to have learned nothing and is again filled with rage. He turns to his father for support; however, the eminent rabbi replies “son, it is sufficient that you and I are in the world [learning Torah.]” We may not have the same vision what is right as everyone around us; but we must be careful lest we destroy the world out of anger and spite.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook famously remarked, “If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love — ahavat chinam. (Orot HaKodesh vol. III, p. 324) God taught this lesson to Rabbi Shimon b. Yochai. It is high time for us all to learn it as well.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.