As we celebrated Lag B’Omer two days ago many of us will be a full two months into our corona-induced isolation. Many of us have overcome the illness, some of us are in mourning (heaven forfend), and most of us are (thankfully) simply sheltering in place, wondering when and how this will end.
And it will end.
And when it does, I will look back and…
We are not sure. What will we have accomplished? How will we have changed?
We managed to kosher the kitchen for Passover. We will have kept up a relatively normal work schedule. We will have become an expert at shopping online. We will have gotten most of the kids to bed relatively close to their pre-pandemic bedtimes, most of the nights, most of the time.
We will have … what? What will we have to show for this once-in-a-lifetime experience that G‑d has gifted me? What mark has it left on me and my home, ground zero of my current reality?
This question takes on an added layer of urgency when I think about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, whose life is the reason we celebrate on Lag BaOmer. He sheltered in place for 13 years, not two months.
Did you know that Rabbi Shimon was a prolific Talmudist and a consummate educator, whose teachings on virtually every area of Jewish life are quoted in more than 90% of the tractates of the Mishnah (the foundational text of the Talmud), and whose Kabbalistic teachings form the underpinnings of Jewish mysticism?
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, also known by his acronym Rashbi, was a 2nd-century tannatic sage in ancient Judea, active after the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE. He was one of the most eminent disciples of Rabbi Akiva, and attributed with the authorship of the Zohar, the chief work of Kabbalah.
According to popular legend, he and his son, Elazar B. Simeon, were noted Kabbalists Both figures are held in unique reverence by Kabbalistic tradition. By tradition, they were buried in the same tomb in Meron, Israel which is visited by thousands year-round.
The persecution of the Jews under Hadrian inspired Shimon with a different opinion of the Romans than that held by his father. Shimon often demonstrated his anti-Roman feeling. When, at a meeting between Shimon and his former fellow pupils at Usha (city in Israel), probably about a year and a half after Rabbi Akiva’s death (c. 126), Judah ben Ilai spoke in praise of the Roman government, Shimon replied that the institutions which seemed so praiseworthy to Judah were for the benefit of the Romans only, to facilitate the carrying out of their wicked designs. Shimon’s words were carried by Judah b. Gerim (one of his own pupils) to the Roman governor, who sentenced Shimon to death (according to Gratz, this governor was Varus, who ruled under Antonius Pius, and the event took place about 161). Shimon was compelled to seek refuge in a cavern, where he remained thirteen years, till the emperor, possibly Hadrian, died.
Far from his wife, who had been spiriting them food until then, Rabbi Shimon and his son were forced to live off spring water (not the kind from a bottle) and carobs. To preserve their clothing, they spent most of their days buried in the sand (ouch!).
And there they remained for 13 long years.
He lived and breathed Jewish scholarship, deriving his energy from the lively discussion and inspiring atmosphere of the study hall (beit Midrash).
In fact, it’s no accident that when he became a wanted man for speaking ill of the tyrannical Romans, his first (and preferred) hiding place was the study hall, where he felt most at home.
But then the Roman noose tightened and he needed to leave his beloved study hall and hide in a tiny cave, tucked away in the Galilean hills. (When tourism resumes, you can actually go see it above the town of Peki’in—it’s tiny.)
Compared to them, my isolation experience, enhanced by online shopping, central heating and cooling, and a laundry room in the basement, is a vacation–and a short one at that.
Now consider what Rabbi Shimon and his son did while holed up in their cave: They studied Torah and kabbalah, and attained such a degree of spirituality that their very gaze could reduce something they disapproved of to a heap of ashes.
And their scholarship was on an entirely different level. Before he went into hiding, whenever Rabbi Shimon posed a question, Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair would supply 12 answers. But afterward, for every question from Rabbi Pinchas, Rabbi Shimon would furnish 24 replies.
How did this happen?
Rabbi Shimon touched upon a very important fundamental. You do not need to be in the study hall to study Torah, and you do not need to be in the synagogue to communicate with G‑d.
Quotes from Rabbi Shimon
Better for that man to make himself fall into a fiery furnace than to embarrass his neighbor publicly.
There are three crowns – the crown of the Law, the crown of the priesthood and the crown of kingship. but the crown of a good name excels them all.
The Holy One, blessed be He, has given three gifts to Israel: Torah, the Land of Israel, and the world to come.
A bird without heaven’s consent cannot perish. How much more, then, man himself!
He that causes a man to sin is worse than he that had killed him.
I have seen those destined for the world to come. If they are thirty, my son and I are among them. If they are ten, my son and I are among them. If they are two, my son and I are them.
The Divine Law (Torah) was not given to expound, except unto those who eat manna (i.e. to those who are free from worldly cares and worries).
If you study in a cave, the cave becomes a study hall. And when you pray at home, your house becomes a synagogue. If you find it within yourself to be just a bit more patient with the members of your household, or if you’ve reached out of your comfort zone to call someone in need of a pick-me-up, you’ve made your home a place of kindness and peace, where G‑d assures us His presence rests.
We need not wait for our communal institutions to open for us to function as Jews. Our homes are our sanctuaries, the center of Jewish life, and the nexus of our connection with G‑d. They have always been and forever will be. This reality has simply crystallized in a way we may have previously overlooked.
My Lag BaOmer resolution is to grab hold of this truth and allow it to guide me in the days and weeks ahead.
The Jewish home is a miniature temple, in which each and every one of us is High Priest, rabbi, and chazzan.
If G‑d placed us in these circumstances, He believes we can do it. And if He believes in us, surely we should as well.
A Lot of Salt
Rabbi Meyerovitz was teaching his Hebrew school class when he came to the story about Lot’s wife. The rabbi was describing how Lot’s wife looked back and turned into a pillar of salt, when little David interrupted.
“My Mommy looked back once while she was DRIVING,” he announced triumphantly, “and she turned into a telephone pole!”