As the Talmud famously relates, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was once overheard criticizing the Roman regime, and when his comments were reported to the Roman authorities, he was forced to flee for his life. Without telling anyone of their whereabouts, Rabbi Shimon and his son hid in a cave, where they were sustained by a spring of fresh water and a carob tree that had miraculously sprung up at the entrance to the cave. For twelve years, Rabbi Shimon and his son studied and prayed without interruption, until they became the holiest sages of their day.
After twelve intense years, the prophet Eliyahu brought them good tidings; there was a change in the Roman government, and it was now safe to emerge from the cave and return to society. Rabbi Shimon and his son left the cave, and soon passed a field where they saw Jewish farmers working the land. Shocked by such mundane activities, they said, “How can people give up the sacred study of the Torah (חיי עולם, eternal life) for worldly matters (חיי שעה, temporal life)?!” As soon as they uttered these words, all the produce of the field erupted in flames! Immediately, a voice from heaven spoke to Rabbi Shimon and his son: “Have you come out to destroy My world? Go back to your cave!” And so they returned to the cave for another twelve months, only leaving when they heard the same heavenly voice calling them to leave.
Upon leaving the cave for the second time, they saw an older Jew carrying two bunches of myrtle, rushing to get home on Friday afternoon. Curious, they asked the man what the myrtle was for. “It is to adorn my house in honor of the Shabbat,” the man replied, “one for ‘Remember the Shabbat day’ (זכור) and the other for ‘Keep the Shabbat Day.’ (שמור)” Moved by the man’s answer, Rabbi Shimon said to his son, “See how precious the Mitzvot are to the people of Israel!” (Shabbat 33b)
Rav Avraham Tzvi Kluger interprets this well-known story in a fascinating way. He explains that the Rabbi Shimon’s encounters with the farmer (the first time he left the cave) and the older man carrying myrtle branches (the second time he left the cave) were not coincidences. In fact, the older man carrying the myrtle bunches in honor of Shabbat was the very same man as the farmer whom Rabbi Shimon had seen plowing the field the year before! The only thing that had changed during the course of their extra year in the cave was Rabbi Shimon’s perspective.
The first time they left the cave, Rabbi Shimon saw this Jewish farmer superficially, focusing only on his physical actions. He saw a man who was wasting precious moments of his life, plowing a field, and his reaction was immediate: what a waste of time! But the second time he emerged from the cave, Rabbi Shimon looked at this farmer in a different and deeper way. The second time, he understood that all the physical work this Jewish farmer was doing was for a higher and holy purpose – for the honor of Shabbos and G-d!
Rabbi Shimon, of course, turned lemons into lemonade, taking advantage of his years of hiding to transform himself and, ultimately, the entire course of Jewish history. But it’s surely no accident that the most difficult trait for him to refine was the way he looked at his fellow Jews. Even after twelve long years of holy isolation, immersed in Torah study and profound reflection, Rabbi Shimon still struggled to view his fellow Jews with eyes of love and understanding! Only after another full year of reflection in the cave, training himself to see other people in a deeper and more sensitive way, was he finally ready to rejoin the Jewish people and fulfill his Divine mission. It is no coincidence that Rabbi Shimon became the man who revealed the great light of the “hidden Torah” (known as the Kabbalah, the תורת הסוד) to the Jewish people. For Rabbi Shimon had learned to look deeper.
In our own time, we’ve had to follow in the footsteps of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, forced to “hide” in our “caves” for months, cut off from social and spiritual gatherings with our community. Though none of us can know G-d’s mind with certainty, perhaps the purpose of our isolation is to learn the very same lesson that Rabbi Shimon and his son learned so long ago: to look at each other in a deeper way, with eyes of love and understanding.
All of us have flaws, but it is also true that we are deeper and more complex than we appear on the surface. As human beings, we cannot begin to comprehend our own complexity, let alone the complexity of others! Only G-d can search the heart of every person; only G-d understands his or her unique struggles and life experiences. If we have learned anything from our experience these last few months, it is how little we know and understand in this world! When the time comes to return to normal life, how can we not emerge with greater humility and empathy for one another?
But let’s be honest: it is absolutely possible to emerge from our current isolation every bit as small minded and judgmental as we were before! If the great Rabbi Shimon struggled to overcome the natural inclination to judge his fellow man, we will certainly struggle as well. The first week we return to shul – whenever that day comes – will no doubt be a Shabbat of unmitigated love. We will smile at each other with wide open hearts; the inevitable masks and social distancing we will have to contend with will not temper our joy! But sooner than we realize, old attitudes will return. We’ll fall back into old habits of complaining, and old resentments will return.
Unless. Unless we use our time now, when we are stuck in our caves, to do the hard work that is necessary to become bigger people than we were before (and I don’t mean THAT kind of bigger). Unless we actively think about the people we used to look down upon, and reflect on why we shouldn’t. Unless we consciously make an effort to think differently and more empathically about people who have angered and frustrated us in the past. None of this will happen naturally or subconsciously; like anything else that matters in life, we have to work at it. But wouldn’t it be amazing – even life changing! – if we returned to Shul with a little more humility and empathy than we had when we left?
On Lag B’Omer, we do not light candles individually in our homes. Instead, our custom is to light a bonfire together, to express the deeper unity of the Jewish people. As Rabbi Shimon and the Kabbalists have taught, each Jewish soul is only a “piece” of one larger and unified soul. Though we dwell in separate bodies, our souls are intertwined, bound up with one another.
Though we cannot gather around a bonfire this year, I pray that our temporary separation will ultimately bring us closer together. May the day soon come when we will emerge from our caves, and see each other with eyes of love!