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Seeing blessing within the curse: The indomitable spirit of R’ Shimon ben Yochai

After the destruction of the Second Temple, some of the great scholars in Israel debated the unthinkable question. Whether the Torah would ever be forgotten by the Jewish People. Although the opinion of the Rabbis said that it would indeed be forgotten, Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai forcefully disagreed: חַס וְשָׁלוֹם שֶׁתִּשְׁתַּכַּח תּוֹרָה מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל “Heaven forbid that Torah should be forgotten among the Jewish People!”(Shabbat 138b) 

Now, 2000 years after this debate took place, who was right? There has been a miraculous renewal of Torah learning, albeit, alongside staggering assimilation. Furthermore, I wonder how the Rabbis could put forth such a devastating viewpoint without tearing “Kriya? (The act of ripping one’s garment upon hearing of the death of a close relative).

What exactly will be forgotten

To prove their point, the Rabbis brought the famous verse from the book of Amos: 

 ״הִנֵּה יָמִים בָּאִים נְאֻם ה׳ אֱלֹקים וְהִשְׁלַחְתִּי רָעָב בָּאָרֶץ לֹא רָעָב לַלֶּחֶם וְלֹא צָמָא לַמַּיִם כִּי אִם לִשְׁמוֹעַ אֵת דִּבְרֵי ה׳

Behold, days are approaching, says the Lord God, and I will send forth a hunger in the land, not a hunger for bread and not a thirst for water, but for hearing the words of God.” (Amos 8:11).

The very next verse ends with the words וְלֹא יִמְצָאוּ״. “And they will not find it.” (ibid 8:12)

The Rabbis in the Talmud proposed three possibilities for what is meant by the “דִּבְרֵי ה׳, the word of God” that people were seeking and could not find. It could be prophesy, which came to a close in the second Temple period. It’s hard to imagine this, but people were able to consult a prophet to find out God’s will and the absolute truth. Aside from the prophets mentioned in Tanach, there were hundreds of other true prophets who lived in the first and second Temple periods.

A second opinion of what the people were thirsting for is the knowledge of when “הַקֵּץ – the Messianic era” will arrive. Even if only a small number of great scholars knew the date, it was comforting for everyone else to know that there was indeed an end of days. Perhaps the need to know this was even more critical after God allowed His Temple to be destroyed, and His people exiled. Now it takes greater faith to believe in the coming of Moshiach.

The third opinion in the Talmud about what will be forgotten relates to the scholarship needed to decide matters of Jewish law.

Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai found even this scenario to be impossible. His response to the Rabbis is as larger than life as Shimon Ben Yochai was himself. He declared  – חַס וְשָׁלוֹם שֶׁתִּשְׁתַּכַּח תּוֹרָה מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל “Heaven forbid that Torah should be forgotten among the Jews!” Even the ability to rule on matters of Jewish law will never be forgotten, rather, because of differences of opinion, it will be hard to find clarity, בִּמְקוֹם אֶחָד  “from any one, single source.” (Shabbat 138b)

A glimpse into the end of days

Ironically, the first verse cited by the Rabbis sounds like it would completely disprove any notion of forgetting the Torah. It’s an uplifting description of the great spiritual heights that Mankind will seek at the end of days: “Behold, days are approaching, says the Lord God, and I will send forth a hunger in the land, not a hunger for bread and not a thirst for water, but for hearing the words of God.” (ibid). It sounds as inspiring as the famous verse in Yeshayahu (2:4) “..they shall beat their swords into plowshares,..” No wonder this verse from Amos has provided the lyrics for many soulful melodies that seem to capture Mankind’s spiritual reawakening.

However, as we mentioned, the prophet describes how this search for spirituality will fail  – וְלֹא יִמְצָאוּ״  “and they shall not find it (ibid 8:12). In fact, when you read the entire chapter in Amos you get a very different story. As many commentators note, It seems to describe the hopelessness and desperation after the destruction of the Temple and the impending exile. 

How can the same chapter be so uplifting and so depressing at the same time? The answer is that the prophet Amos is simultaneously covering two distinctly different periods in Jewish history – the tragic aftermath of the destruction of the Temple and the momentous end of days.

The Tochacha (rebuke) of Parshat Bechukotai sheds light on this question

Right in the middle of the holocaust-sounding predictions of Parshat Bechukosai comes this verse: (וַהֲשִׁמֹּתִ֥י אֲנִ֖י אֶת־הָאָ֑רֶץ וְשָֽׁמְמ֤וּ עָלֶ֙יהָ֙ אֹֽיְבֵיכֶ֔ם הַיֹּשְׁבִ֖ים בָּֽהּ׃ 

I will make the land desolate, so that your enemies who settle in it shall be appalled by it.” (Vayikra -26:32) 

Rashi points out that this is actually a blessing. Since God is going to make the land of Israel desolate, no conquering nation will want to occupy the land. As we know, the land of Israel “waited” for the Jewish People to return after 2000 years. Now that we have returned, the desert is now blooming.*

A blessing in disguise

Perhaps we can also see the thirst for the knowledge of God that the prophet Amos describes, as a blessing in disguise. Yes, it’s referring to the devastating transition that the Jews had to make in order to keep their faith in a post-Temple reality. Yet, right in the middle of the doom and gloom is a verse that describes (and promises) a lofty pre–Messianic state in which the Jewish People and the entire world will return to God. Perhaps Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai saw so much  beauty in the verse from Amos that he knew that the proof text of the Rabbis could be refuted. When God makes such a beautiful promise of a world seeking spirituality, then “heaven forbid” the Torah will ever depart from the Jewish People. True, at the time of the destruction of the Temple the Jews were in such despair that they could not find answers. However, when that beautiful verse serves to provide us a glimpse of the end of days, those searching for the word of God will find answers. Perhaps they will have to seek out several sources of growth and inspiration, but their thirst will not go unquenched. 

This is not all that different from the life of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai. He was forced to flee for his life because of a death sentence imposed on him from the Romans. This too was a blessing in disguise. He spent 13 years in a cave learning secrets of the Torah with his son. In doing so, he brought down a great light from heaven that helped the Jewish People through some of our darkest times.

.* Indeed, the Romans, Arabs, Crusaders and Ottomans failed miserably in their efforts to settle the land of Israel. Even as recently as approximately 150 years ago, Mark Twain described  his visit to Palestine this way: “It is a hopeless, dreary, heart-broken land…Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes…desolate and unlovely.”

About the Author
After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at www.mindprintmarketing.com. We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
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