Happy Lag BaOmer, everyone! And happy yahrzeit for Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, one of biggest names connected with the holiday!
Frankly, I’d always thought that Rashbi, as his friends call(ed) him, was a bit of a self-righteous jerk. After lambasting the Romans (Prostitution! Self-indulgence! Taxes!) in a Talmudic passage that tars a convert to Judaism as a traitorous stool pigeon, he declares his own wife to be untrustworthy because “women are easily impressionable” and flees with his son to hide in a cave, where the two of them pray and study Torah pretty much continuously for twelve (!) years. (And I thought my Thursday afternoon Hebrew school sessions as a kid felt long. Sheesh.)
When they come out and see farmers farming (as they tend to do), Rabbi Shimon despairs of how the Jewish people have given up on the “eternal life of Torah study and engage in temporal life for their own sustenance.” (Presumably the farmers feed more than just themselves, and not all of us are so lucky as Rabbi Shimon to have a magic carob tree to sustain us, but OK.) In his anger, he and his son laser-blast the world with their eyes (no, really, that’s what the text says) and turn the area into a flaming hellscape.
Chastised by the Divine Voice, they return to their cave for twelve months as punishment; nevertheless, Rabbi Shimon seems somewhat unrepentant when he emerges, declaring, “My son, you and I suffice for the entire world, as the two of us are engaged in the proper study of Torah.” Only when he sees a man welcoming Shabbat with two branches of myrtle does he accept that not everyone is cut out for the eremitic lifestyle he and his son have been practicing. Although he never explicitly accepts that there’s a legitimate way of studying Torah other than his, in Sara Wolkenfeld’s words, “seeing an example of the way physical, agricultural products can be integrated into one’s spiritual life soothes them.”
I’ll admit, I’m both jealous of Rabbi Shimon’s Cyclops-like abilities and sympathetic toward him for his life-on-the-run-from-the-law existence. But he’s the paradigm of disconnection from the necessities of hands-on labour and a stereotype of ivory-tower-ness, failing to appreciate the ways in which working in the world enables people to earn a living and to sustain themselves and others. So, fine, “self-righteous jerk” might be a tad strong, but so is burning up the world with your extra-cool and extra-dangerous laser vision because people aren’t taking Torah study seriously enough for you. And that’s how this narrative has always felt.
Now, though, this passage seems different. Very different.
Before March 13, my daughter and I would stop by to pick up groceries from the local supermarket on our walk home from the subway. Now, closing in on two months of lockdown, we rarely interact with people in person and try to limit our shopping to once every two weeks. The biweekly quantity of groceries requires taking the car, and during the ninety-second trip, the following thoughts surface:
- I’m glad I eventually remembered where my wallet was. And it only took me ten minutes to find it. Who needs wallets anymore?
- Do I remember how to drive? I’m not sure I remember how to drive.
- Going out of the house feels so transgressive. I know I’m allowed to do this, but it doesn’t feel right or legal. It’s like being a teenager sneaking out after curfew. What if I’m caught? Oh, but right, I’m allowed to do this.
- Driving to get groceries from a store that’s closer by walking than driving is so ridiculous. Having to go out to get groceries is so ridiculous. Having to buy food is ridiculous. Having to eat is ridiculous.
- Do I have my mask? Where’s my mask? How about my gloves? And the disposable wipes? Do I really need all this crap?
- I think we have enough milk. I’m not sure if we have enough milk. I have to remember to get more milk.
- At some point, I should probably order some protective gloves. Because these woolen mittens probably aren’t all that effective.
- Should I put on my mittens before I grab the shopping list or after? Can I physically pick up the shopping list while wearing these mittens? I really should probably order some protective gloves. Or maybe dishwasher gloves.
- I’m scared. And I’m scared and grateful and anxious for the people who work at the supermarket. And I don’t know how to express that respectfully and appropriately.
- If I leave the non-refrigerated groceries in the car for three days, do I still have to disinfect them when I bring them into the house? I was a linguistics major. How am I supposed to know this? Uch, science. We were friends once. What’s happened?
- If my mask covers my smile, how will people know I’m super friendly?
- There are a lot of people at that bus stop. And they’re standing so close together.
- In a parallel universe right now, the two of us are riding the subway to school and work, ready to do some serious Jewish learning and teaching. It’s so stupid that we’re not in that universe.
All this in ninety seconds. And that’s after only two months at home with the comforts of post-modern life and regular online interactions with friends and family around the world.
Yeah, I know, isolation with just my nine-year-old daughter as live-in company (in moments of COVID-induced melodrama, I sometimes imagine myself to be Prospero; if we get a pandemic puppy, we’ll name it Caliban) isn’t the equivalent of fleeing a Roman death sentence and spending twelve years hiding in a cave. Lehavdil. But if, after two months, my mundane and worldly obligations feel bizarre, irksome, distracting, and bewildering when I have to engage with them, it must be even more so for Rabbi S.
So Rabbi Shimon, I’m sorry. I judged you harshly, perhaps establishing that I’m the self-righteous jerk, not you. My bad.