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Coming out of our Caves #626

05/08/2020 05:45:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Coming Out of Our Caves?

There is a story in the Talmud about how Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai perhaps Judaism's most renowned ancient Kabbalist  achieved his great spiritual understanding.

In 126 CE, when the Romans ruled Israel under Emperor Hadrian, the study of Torah was forbidden. Many of our most famous rabbis died defying that order.

But Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son Eliezer had a better idea. They found a cave outside of Jerusalem and socially isolated themselves for 12 years, sustained by a carob tree and a spring of water. 

There, they lived a life of seclusion and ecstasy, immersing themselves in the sacred and secret depths of the Kabbalah.

When Emperor Hadrian died, the door opened for Bar Yochai and his son to come out of hiding.

As they exited the cave, and adjusted their eyes to the sunlight, they saw farmers toiling the land, and they became incensed. Fire blazed from Eliezer's eyes.

"How can you waste your time engaged in stupid activities like farming, when there is so much Torah to learn?" Bar Yochai exclaimed.  

But then something remarkable happened. A bat kol (a feminine voice) blasted down from God's realm, demanding Bar Yochai and his son, ease up, and "go back into that cave until you can learn how to apply God's word to real life."

And so, Shimon bar Yochai and his son returned to the cave. They emerged a year later, having learned how to intersect religion with life, thus confirming their status as great masters of the Kabbalistic tradition.

In the cave, they realized that God's spirit is in everything we do. It is in the seed farmers cultivate, in the trees they plant, in the food they produce. It extends to the kindness we show each other, and even how we spend our time each day.

I was thinking about the Bar Yochai story this week, in advance of a holiday that begins next Monday evening.

It's known as Lag Ba'Omer, the 33rd day after our liberation from Egypt. According to tradition, it is also the day when a great plague, which claimed 10,000 students of the great Rabbi Akiva, officially ended.

And, it marks — with great celebration — the day Bar Yochai died. People gather at his grave in Safed, Israel, where they meditate, pray and tell stories.

Perhaps more than ever, Shimon bar Yochai, and the story of his revelation is relevant this year.

Indeed, like Shimon bar Yochai and Eliezer, today we are all socially isolated. If you are like most, you are eating more than usual, becoming overly familiar with Netflix. You're taking more naps and sleeping less, trying to avoid monotony and boredom.

Yet, there is a positive underside to all of this. Perhaps most importantly, we are spending more time being mortal. With each minor cough and sniffle, we worry about ourselves and those close to us. We have become incredibly attuned to life.

Before the pandemic, we had our routine: We worked, we ate, we vacationed — we pursued the next diversion.

But that has changed. Through our isolation, we have learned to reflect. We are learning to find God in every action. We are grateful.

When we call an elder to talk or offer to shop, we act the way God would act — with love and compassion. When we donate to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, we show concern and empathy.

When we take time to help our children with their studies, we fulfill the ancient mitzvah commanding us to "teach these words to our children."

Indeed, we are — after weeks of social isolation — resisting the impulse to merely "kill time." This is an opportunity. For at the end of these trying days, many of us will look back and ask ourselves, "Did we do enough?"

Over the years, many of us have mused, "If only I had more time." Now we do.

There are many more minutes in a day than we ever imagined. Let's put a few of them aside and thank God for life. Let us take a moment each day to pray. In gratitude, in fear, in praise.

There is a remarkable quote from the Book of Isaiah which my cousin Rabbi Yisroel Roll pointed out to me this morning.

Go, my people, enter your chambers
And lock your doors behind you.
Hide but a little moment,
Until the wrath has passed  (Isaiah 26:20)

Now that our doors are locked, and we are restricted to our chambers, let us take a few moments for thought, for prayer, for reflection and — most of all — for action.

Whether through a phone call, through Zoom, through a donation, through safe family walks let us lift ourselves up within those chambers.

Over our entire lifetime, this will be a relatively short moment. All the more reason now to rejoice in what we have. We have life.

Until freedom comes, we will touch hearts across computer screens. We will long for that moment, when we can exit our cave to hug, touch, laugh, rejoice and embrace even better than before.

When that day arrives hopefully soon — how will we have changed for the better? Is there someone we can call right now and connect with to comfort — and perhaps comfort ourselves, as well? Voice to voice. Face to face. Heart to heart.

Our friends, our work mates, our families, in particular our children and grandchildren: How we love and miss them all. For within the isolation of our caves, we have learned to cherish them so much more.

Let us prepare for that joyous day, by embracing God's light within and identifying opportunity during these anxious times.

Indeed, when that day comes, will we be ready to re-emerge, appreciating each other and the gift of life even more.

Shabbat Shalom, v'kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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