Posts Tagged 'Cave'

Being Enough: Rashbi, Lag B’Omer, and Covid

According to tradition Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, marks the death of the Rashbi (Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai). For this reason thousands go to Har Meron every year to commemorate his yahrzeit. Sadly last night, after what seems to be a collapse of a ramp and a stampede of people, over one hundred people were injured and at least 45 died at Har Meron. Even before this horrible tragedy I have been thinking about the Rashbi and this moment in history. The iconic story of the Rashbi and his son in the Talmud is a poignant frame to help us reflect on our protracted period of social distancing due to Covid and the prospects of emergence from isolation . (Shabbat 33b-34a)

At the start of this story, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is debating the merits of the Roman Empire with Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yose. When the Rashbi’s harsh critique of Rome gets reported to the authorities, he is condemned to death. He goes on the lamb with his son Rabbi Elazar. At first, they hide in the Beit Midrash, but then they find shelter in a miraculous cave with a carob tree and brook. With their physical needs of safety and nourishment taken care of, the Rashbi and and his son spend the next 12 years immersed in prayer and study. After 12 years in isolation, Elijah comes to tell them that the emperor died and it is safe to leave the cave.

As we contemplate, what life might look like after Covid, the story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Elazar needs a closer analysis. The story continues:

They emerged from the cave, and saw people who were plowing and sowing. Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai said: These people abandon eternal life of Torah study and engage in temporal life for their own sustenance. The Gemara relates that every place that Rabbi Shimon and his son Rabbi Elazar directed their eyes was immediately burned. A Divine Voice emerged and said to them: Did you emerge from the cave in order to destroy My world? Return to your cave. They again went and sat there for twelve months. They said: The judgment of the wicked in Gehenna lasts for twelve months. Surely their sin was atoned in that time. A Divine Voice emerged and said to them: Emerge from your cave. They emerged. Everywhere that Rabbi Elazar would strike, Rabbi Shimon would heal. Rabbi Shimon said to Rabbi Elazar: My son, you and I suffice for the entire world, as the two of us are engaged in the proper study of Torah.( Shabbat 33b)

For the Rashbi and his son, after spending 12 years in isolation the transition to society was not easy. It is hard to imagine that our reemergence after more than 12 months will go any smoother. Similar to the Rashbi and his son, as we come out of our caves we all have to reconcile the divergence of practices around Covid. Do we all mask or gather? We will not be keep the same standards. Do we understand that the process will be iterative? Will be get stuck being judgmental? Will we burn up our relationships as we reemerge?

What is our role with our children or students? We will both want to act out. As adults we need to give them limits. We also need to help them fail as they mediate this experience of reemergence. This story helps us communicate that this is not new. We will need to rethink how we discipline out children. We also need to understand that “time-outs” might not be so effective.

Their story of reemergence continues:

As the sun was setting on Shabbat eve, they saw an elderly man who was holding two bundles of myrtle branches and running at twilight. They said to him: Why do you have these? He said to them: In honor of Shabbat. They said to him: And let one suffice. He answered them: One is corresponding to: “Remember the Shabbat day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8), and one is corresponding to: “Protect the Shabbat day, to keep it holy” (Deuteronomy 5:12). Rabbi Shimon said to his son: See how beloved the mitzvot are to Israel. Their minds were put at ease and they were no longer as upset that people were not engaged in Torah study..  (Shabbat 33b)

What about this man’s behavior that placates them? In a simple way he was able to wed together the life of learning (in the cave) and the real world ( plowing and sowing). The old man was able to show his understanding of the two versions of the commandment of Shabbat in a embodied practice. On a deeper level he was able to help the Rashbi and his son reemerge from society. What did they want to remember and protect from their life in the cave and their lives in the real world?

Covid has been and continues to be horrible. Many have died. In turn this has left so many to mourn them. Still more have been hurt physically, emotionally, and economically by this plague. For almost all of us social distancing measures have been difficult if not just annoying.

And for some of us, this time in isolation has itself been a blessing if not a miracle. Yes, balancing work and the kids has been challenging, but it has not been all bad. While we might feel guilty saying it, we might have enjoyed our time in the cave with our family/pod. Similarly, I might complain about the monotony of carobs for dinner again, but I love the time I save in not worrying about my wardrobe or commuting.

Focusing on what is worth remembering and protecting allows us to express the wisdom of the Rashbi. We have and are enough. We maintain an isolation because we have shame that we are not enough. Brené Brown teaches that a pervasive sense of shame makes many of us—particularly in America—feel unworthy of human connection. Why do we experience this shame? Because in this perfectionistic culture, most of us believe we’re “not good enough…not thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, smart enough, promoted enough” to be worthy of love. So we can’t afford to let our guard down, become vulnerable, because letting others see us as we really are would mean we’d be rejected out of hand. Better to avoid emotional risk, avoid vulnerability, and numb ourselves to any pain we can’t escape, even if we ran away to a magical cave. 

We will only by happy with our re-emergence when have a renewed sense that we are enough.

Unnatural Darkness – Rabbi Seltzer

***This was sent to me by Rabbi Joel Seltzer. He is the #2 Rabbi at Temple Emanu-el in Providence, RI. More relavant to why I am sharing this piece Rabbi Seltzer was one of my counselors when I was a Rosh Edah. Ah, how time flies?***

So there I stood, in one of the cool and moist underground caves which typify the Dixie Caverns outside of Roanoke, Virginia; trying to make sure that the forty Camp Ramah teenagers I was in charge of did not cause too much trouble, when suddenly my Rosh Edah, Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow says to the group, ‘Ok, everyone stand shoulder-to-shoulder up against the wall of the cave.’  Slowly, the kids began to move, and ultimately they stood in a tight line in relative silence.  ‘Face the wall,’ Avi shouted, and when they did he shined his heavy-duty flashlight toward their backs, casting their shadows against the wall.  ‘Read,’ Avi said, as he handed me a small book.  So I read.

The book he handed me was Plato’s The Republic, and the particular section was the famous Allegory of the Cave.  In it Plato imagines a group of human beings who are made to sit in a dark cave, chained so that they may only look straight ahead of them, staring at the wall.  Behind them is a fire, and men are walking, speaking and carrying objects in front of this fire – casting their shadows upon the opposite wall.  In this situation, Plato explains, a person who was forced to watch these shadows on the wall, and therefore knew of no other reality, would surely come to the conclusion that these dark images were actual beings, with real voices, carrying real objects, and that this world of mere passing shadow was indeed the very epitome of reality.

But then, Plato (through the character of Aristotle) asks us to imagine that one such person was freed from their chains and forced to look around at his true situation; would he not be overwhelmed by such a revelation: the existence of the fire, the reality of the players and the actuality of the objects they were carrying?  Furthermore, if that person were then taken up a rugged ascent and brought out of the cave into the sunlight, would not their understanding of the world be irreparably shattered?  Surely the light of the sun would pain them and, until their eyes adjusted, they would certainly be unable to even look at another human being and see their bodily image as it truly is. Thus, Plato proves, perception truly is reality.

I’m not sure that group of forty teenagers would remember a single detail of this story – but I remember it well.  Not only because it was the first time I had read the work of Plato, and not only because it typifies the unique approach to education that Camp Ramah offers its children, but ultimately I remember this incident because of its unfortunate truth.  That we human beings are sadly chained to our limited perceptions; we stare ahead at the wall, never daring to turn and see the world as it truly is.  We take both darkness and shadow as givens in this world of ours, and over time, we have allowed our eyes to adjust to this unnatural lack of light.

Which brings me to this morning’s Parasha, Parashat Bo, which continues the narrative of the Exodus of B’nei Yisrael out of the slavery and degradation of Mitzrayim. In Parashat Bo, God delivers the final three plagues upon the hardened-heart of Pharaoh, the Egyptian people, and their gods; the plagues of Locusts, Darkness, and the Killing of the First-Born.  While the final plague Makkat B’chorot, the Killing of the First-Born, is no doubt the most devastating, the penultimate plague, hoshekh, or darkness, must have been the most terrifying.

The Torah tells us that the Lord said to Moses

וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה נְטֵה יָֽדְךָ עַל-הַשָּׁמַיִם, וִיהִי חֹשֶׁךְ עַל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם, וְיָמֵשׁ חֹֽשֶׁךְ:

“Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.” (Exodus 10:21)

This final phrase of this verse “v’yameish hoshekh”, “a darkness that can be touched,” has puzzled commentators for centuries.

The 16th century commentator Rabbi Ovadiah ben Ya’akov S’forno remarks that this darkness was not like the darkness we experience at night.  That ‘natural’ darkness of night, S’forno explains, is simply air that is ready at any moment to take on the light; whereas the ninth plague of hoshekh is an ‘unnatural darkness’ – and even if you shined light upon it, all would remain in shadow. S’forno’s explanation is indeed terrifying.  Imagine a darkness so thick that it actually repelled light; reminiscent of modern physics’ understanding of a black hole, not simply darkness, but actually the very antithesis of light itself.

A much more modern rabbi, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, offers a more scientific explanation.  He understands the Torah’s words “v’yameish hoshekh”, as  suggesting that the plague was actually “a khamsin, a sandstorm of a kind not unfamiliar in Egypt, which can last for several days, producing sand- and dust-filled air that obliterates the light of the sun.”  This kind of hoshekh, Rabbi Sacks explains, is the kind that could indeed be touched.

But ultimately, I prefer the explanation of the Hasidic master Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Alter, better known as the Gerrer Rebbe.  Basing his comment on the verse which reads:

לֹֽא-רָאוּ אִישׁ אֶת-אָחִיו, וְלֹא-קָמוּ אִישׁ מִתַּחְתָּיו שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים, וּֽלְכָל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָיָה אוֹר בְּמֽוֹשְׁבֹתָֽם

“People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was, but the Children of Israel had light in their dwellings.” (Exodus 10:23)

The Gerrer Rebbe, explains that the inability to see one another was in fact both the cause as well the consequence of this plague.  He says that the greatest darkness of all is when a person cannot see the other, when they can not feel the pain of their fellow; and this leads to the terrible result that “no one could get up from where he was,” meaning no one arose to the alleviate the pain of their friend.

This, explains the Gerrer Rebbe, was the true sin of the Egyptians, their inability to see the suffering of the other.  They failed to see the sorrows of their neighbors as the suffered through the first eight plagues; and worse still, they failed to see the humanity of the Israelites who cried out to them bitterly from the hardship of their enslavement.  Thus hoshekh, the darkness, became both the cause and the consequence of these failures.

The truth is that in our modern world, sometimes it feels as though we are sitting in the overwhelming darkness of Plato’s cave.  We stare ahead thinking that the animus, the pessimism and the mistrust that abounds is indeed the very epitome of our reality.  We gaze at these ‘mere shadows’ of our world and we perceive them as though they were truth.

Worse still is that we are in danger of falling into the apathetic trap of the Egyptians.  We teeter on the edge of constant complacency, not only do we not see the struggles of our neighbors, but even when we do see them, even when we recognize their pain, we too often shrug our shoulders and proclaim, ‘what can I do?’

What we can do is remember the end of that verse:

וּֽלְכָל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָיָה אוֹר בְּמֽוֹשְׁבֹתָֽם

“But the Children of Israel had light in their dwellings.”

Why did the Israelites in Egypt experience light, amidst the terrifying darkness?  Perhaps it is because they recognized that the hoshekh was only a trick of their limited perception; it was only a passing shadow on the wall of a cave. They were able to fight the darkness, withstand the temptation towards apathy, and despite their being chained, turn towards one another to see the light of God reflected in the face of their neighbor.  And thus, they were redeemed.

I believe strongly that we must deny the false reality of this world of shadows.  We must arise to the aid of our fellow human beings.  When there are people without homes, without food, without clothing, we must be there.  When there is terror, devastation and darkness, we must try to bring light into our world; this is the very nature of our commandedness.

Yes, the truth is that the light of God, and therefore our true reality, lies outside the cave of our cynicism.  It lies in our ability to look at and truly experience the divine spark which exists in the other; this is the truest example of how to shine light upon the hoshekh of our world. It is the task of the Jew, and of every human being, to seek out this light, to allow our eyes to adjust to the true, Godly reality of our world, and to let this light shine through – even in the most unnatural of darkness.


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