How Rabbis Emerge from their “Rabbi-Cave”
A lesson from the Parsha
With the holiday of Lag Ba’omer coming up, preparations across the world have already begun. On Lag Ba’omer it is an age-old custom to make large bonfires. What is the reason for this?
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was once having a discussion with fellow students of Rabbi Akiva when one of them commented how great the Romans were – exclaiming how they built bridges. Rabbi Shimon argued that the Roman Empire’s motive here was not “Tikun Olam,” improving the world and making life better for everyone. Instead, they merely cared just for themselves: The bridges were just to make money, like today’s toll roads, and the same thing with the bathhouses and so on.
Word got back to the Romans and they were out to kill Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai who went into hiding with his son – first to a house of learning and soon after a cave.
In the cave, a miracle happened and an entire carob tree sprouted up to give them fruit to eat, and a freshwater wall sprung up so they would have water to drink.
And so they lived in the cave, studying Torah and praying every day—for 12 straight years.
(There is a legend that they kept small fires burning in the cave to keep themselves warm, which is one reason why we have the custom of lighting bonfires on Lag B’Omer.)
But hiding in a cave for well over an entire decade, in complete isolation and suffering, left them very far from material matters and worldly concerns. They became extremely spiritual human beings—to them, it no longer mattered what kind of car you drove or how your house or clothes looked. The entire physical plane was of no concern to them.
Their spiritual state was so high when they left the cave after the Roman Caesar died, that the Talmud tells us that when they saw people plowing and sowing their fields, they said, “These people are putting aside eternal life and busying themselves with temporary life!”
They simply could not understand how people could waste their time on small and unimportant things instead of studying Torah, which is true eternal life.
Not only that, but the Talmud tells us that “every place upon which they set their eyes was immediately incinerated; a Heavenly Voice came forth and said, ‘To destroy My world you came out?! Go back to your cave!’ And so they went back to the cave for another year.”
When they emerged once again, Rabbi Shimon said to his son, “For the world, you and I are enough”—meaning, there is enough spiritual power between the two of us to really change things. And so, instead of overpowering the world with their awesome spiritual powers, they worked to improve the world, helping people live normal and down-to-earth lives.
So we have something interesting happening here.
The first time Rabbi Shimon and son left the cave after 12 years, they failed to understand how no one was like them—kind of like a person starting the latest fad diet and not understanding how other people can actually not get that this is the greatest diet in the world.
And so, they were not ready to allow for the existence of people who did things differently—they “incinerated” them. No one could meet their criteria.
And so, they went back to the cave for another year—and this time, they internalized that not everyone could live the way they lived, and that this way of life was only for them. Regular people, for their part, would need to continue living normal lives—and that’s what G-d expected of them.
What essentially happened that in the course of that last year, they became Chasidim.
My friends, we see this phenomenon today when it comes to religion. It often happens that a religious person cannot understand how the other is not religious like him, especially if the religious person only recently discovered Judaism himself.
The newly religious person may think, “This is the best way of life there is, and if so, how can it be that someone doesn’t live this way?” And so he tries to “convince” everyone of the truth of his new way of life. He debates, brings proofs, and tries to cram it down everyone’s throat.
Such a person may need to go “live in a cave.”
The lesson here, my friends, is that we need to act like Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai after he left his cave for the second time. For yourself, you may be as religious and strict as you like—but don’t force other people to behave like you!
A Chasid is someone who is rigid with himself—but flexible with others.
Let us remember that the purpose of the ultimate fad, our own religion, is not to overpower the world or run away from it, but to grapple and interact and improve it—to work with it from inside it, and to make it the home that G-d wants it to be.