What can we learn from Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai? The man we celebrate on
this Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer?
Inspired by Talmud Shabbat 33b:7 plus plus
The world is not changed by uptight, inflexible people, no matter how spiritually evolved or intellectually capable they might be. From the place we are right, nothing grows writes the modern Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai.
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his adult son lived during the 2nd (some say 3rd) Jewish revolt against the Romans during the 2nd century. These two found themselves needing to find sanctuary from Roman persecution. Rabbi Shimon was outspoken about religious freedom and national autonomy. They were critical of Roman leadership. But they also just wanted to be left alone and study Torah. That was their true dream. And that is precisely what they got.
While others physically battled the Romans to reclaim national and religious freedom, others put noses to books.
Rabbi Shimon and his son hid in a mystical cave for over a decade, sustained only by a magical tree and spring providing water, dates, and carob. They studied Torah 24 hours a day. They never slept. Conscious and unconscious states United. It was like a mini-Garden of Eden in a cave. Just the two of them and God. Suspended in time and space all of the time. And while their bodies, we are told, were constantly covered in sores from the lack of light and limited diet, their minds and spirits soared. They were out of their minds. They fused to the Mind of all Minds.
When the war was over (we lost) and it was safe to come out of the cave, the Rabbi and son emerged. What they saw was not a war-torn countryside, no rubble and ashes, but rather the greenest fields with people harvesting them. The people looked happy! They saw life, not death.
As the sun quickly began to heal their sores, they looked upon the land and they...judged. They did not like this "earthly" earth. They looked at the ground, and their eyes turned into lasers, and everything they saw, burned. Think Fire-starter.
They burned everything they judged as stupid, unworthy, futile, or ridiculous. After living in mental and spiritual at-one-ment with God for so long and doing nothing but study Torah, they could not understand why people would waste their time working on the earth. Growing food? Raising kids? Why? They did not get it. They lost an aspect of their humanity during their isolation. Sometimes, we learn that being hyper spiritually attuned and living a life away from others, with your basic needs being met by some higher can lead to losing a bit of what it means to be human. And we humans, we are here to be humans. Humans gonna human. We are earthlings. Not angels.
So God put them back in the cave for another year.
This time as a punishment.
They had learned a lot but clearly not enough.
After spending another year in the cave, they emerged once again, and this time Rabbi Shimon was able to perceive clearly. He was able to see what it means to be human. Being human means working the land to build communities that feed, house, and care for each other. To bring God into this world through love, compassion, justice, and teaching each other how to be human. Being human means bonding with this earth and creation and learning to sustain and nurture it.
Rabbi Shimon could see, he was transformed, but his son was still limited. The son still had a fire in his eyes. It was clear that now his father, his earthly parent, would be his teacher. Rabbi Shimon would teach him how to be a mensch, a human. And we now know that being a mensch is so much more important than being a spiritual master or a scholar.
As the two walked home, hoping to find their families thriving like the land was so clearly thriving around them, Rabbi Shimon began to teach his son. He taught him Derech Eretz/the ways of the land or "how to get along with others" or "how to be a mensch." As they walked along the path home, the sun was setting, and they ran into a man running towards them with two huge bundles of myrtle in his arms. Rabbi Shimon inquired as to why the man was rushing. "The Sabbath is coming, and I need to get home before sunset." Rabbi Shimon was delighted to hear that people still ran home to honor the Sabbath. The world changed while he was in the cave, but Shabbat was still meaningful, thank God. "But why the heavy load," asked Rabbi Shimon. "Put down some of these fragrant beaches so you can run faster, harder." Rabbi Shimon still had a hard edge. He still judged. "Because the Torah teaches in one place, we must honor Shabbat and in another place to guard Shabbat. Two places in the Torah we are commanded to celebrate Shabbat, so I always bring two bundles of myrtle to my Shabbat table." And off he went.
Rabbi Shimon turned to his son, stunned. He had never heard that teaching before. Double the pleasure, double the celebration. "See how our world has changed. I thought the war, the oppression, and the forces of the secular would destroy our people and our faith. But I was so wrong. They expanded on the teaching and have made it even more beautiful. We learned directly from and with God, sustained only by the Divine, and I thought I had seen the most beauty in the world. But no. Knowing that learning and expanding knowledge during turmoil is even more beautiful."
Rabbi Shimon and his son went home. They continued to study and teach Torah. Rabbi Shimon led the people in the reconstruction of Judaism after we lost our final battle with the Romans. He led us into the Rabbinic era. He has led us towards our future. We adapt, expand, evolve, and renew ourselves as a means of survival.
We evolve as means of resistance. There is great beauty in change.