By Rabbi Betsy Forester
Last week, my colleague Rabbi Mendel Matusof wrote here about the great mystical sage, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (“Rashbi”), the Kabbalist and author of the Zohar, whose yahrzeit was observed on Lag BaOmer, this past Tuesday. I would like to extend that theme by sharing a Talmudic legend about Rashbi.
After Rashbi speaks against the Roman Empire, the Roman authorities order his execution. Rashbi and his son, the sage Rabbi Elazar, hide in a cave for 12 years, where they engage in deep Torah learning all day, buried up to their necks in sand. God provides a carob tree and a stream for sustenance, and that is where Rashbi masters the Torah’s deepest secrets.
Finally, Elijah the Prophet comes to tell them it is safe to emerge. As they begin walking to their village, they see farmers working the land, the sight of which infuriates them. It pains them to see Jewish people engaged in worldly matters. Their angry gaze burns with fire so powerful that it blazes and scorches the land. They burn everything in sight!
God is not pleased and lashes out at them: “Have you come to destroy my world?! Go back to your cave!” So they go back and bury themselves in their cave for another year, only emerging when God calls them back to the real world. This time, Rashbi has a different outlook, and he persuades his son that they can live in a world where people will find their own ways to balance the sacred and the ordinary. They will find a small audience for their lofty teachings, and that will suffice.
But they are still nervous about whether they can live in such a world, until their first Friday afternoon out of hiding, when they encounter an elderly man carrying two bundles of fragrant myrtle to his home for Shabbat. The two rabbis wonder why the man needs so much myrtle, so they ask: “Isn’t one bundle enough?” The man tells them that one bundle is for the mitzvah to “remember the Sabbath day” (Exodus 20:8), and the other is for the mitzvah to “observe the Sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:12). The man believes that those two formulations reveal two different ways to make Shabbat holy, and he welcomed both of them. Rashbi and Rabbi Elazar thus learn that each Jew, whether scholarly or not, can find their way to make Torah a life-giving treasure.
So, what can we learn from this legend of Rashbi and his son? I offer three suggestions:
1) It is good for us to build community from a range of perspectives and approaches to Torah. Our differences make us vibrant and accessible.
2) We can grow our capacity to love and admire others. Rashbi became known for his love and respect for everyone in his community. He taught: “Had a single Jew been missing at Mount Sinai, the Divine revelation could not have occurred” (Devarim Rabbah 7:8).
3) The Hebrew word “l’hishtablel” means “to snail”--literally, to crawl into a cave and wait for trouble to pass. Human beings are not created to be like snails. Created in God’s image, we must bring care, love, and persistent engagement to our world, especially now. We are called to repair our world, just as we are called to protect life and avoid any possibility of adding risk to anyone’s physical health. We should not hide from the challenges of living in dangerous and uncertain times; instead, we must face reality and work to redeem the brokenness before us.
This Lag BaOmer, we could not gather around bonfires or barbeques, but we know a deeper fire: the flame of Torah that burns in the soul of our People. May that fire bring us closer to one another in love and respect so that together, we can do the sacred work of building a healthier world, one where God’s presence will delight to dwell.
Rabbi Betsy Forester joined Beth Israel Center as their spiritual leader in 2018. She is a master teacher and religious leader skilled at helping people build meaningful lives through transformative Jewish experiences rich in authenticity, depth, empowerment, intellectual rigor, sacredness, and joy.