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What We Can Learn from the Rabbi Who Spent 12 Passovers in Isolation

What We Can Learn from the Rabbi Who Spent 12 Passovers in Isolation

View from inside a darkened cave with trees and light visible beyond it

Pesach is usually the time of renewal, the “Holiday of Spring,” when we in the northern hemisphere begin to see the beauty and blossoming of the natural world.

Appropriately, the m’gillah, the selection from the Ketuvim, that we read on Pesach is Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs:

“For now the winter is past, the rains are over and gone. The blossoms have appeared in the land, the time of pruning/singing has come; the song of the turtledove is heard in our land. The green figs form on the fig tree, the vines in blossom give off fragrance. Arise, my darling; My fair one, come away!” (Song of Songs 2:11-13)

The theme of this m’gillah is love, the rebirth of which is symbolized by spring. During Pesach, we celebrate the return of life, of creativity, to the world. How fitting, then, that we read this book on Shabbat Chol HaMo-eid (the Shabbat that occurs during the Intermediate Days of the festival).

This year, though, it may not have the same resonance.

Generally speaking, we are not going outside, not venturing out to the see the vines blossom or hear the turtledoves sing, nor to smell the sweet fragrance of spring as the text suggests.

If you find it difficult to relate to the love poetry and natural renewal of Shir HaShirim, another text might offer a perspective more sympathetic to this year’s circumstances. For those following Daf Yomi (daily study of a page of Talmud), a recent text recounted a most apropos story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

Bar Yochai, sometimes known as RaShBi, fled the Romans after they decreed he be killed for calling them out for self-aggrandizement, greed, and egocentricity. After hiding out in the Beit Midrash, he fled to the north of Israel and, with his son Rabbi Elazar, entered a cave where they remained for 12 years, doing nothing but studying Torah each day.

With no way of communicating with the outside world, they were in total isolation – until Eliyahu HaNavi himself came and announced the lifting of the decree.

This Passover, when we opened the door for Eliyahu HaNavi he didn’t exactly announce that the decree has been lifted. We’ll have to wait a bit longer to emerge from our "caves" to shed the burdens of isolation and distancing, before we can sit around the table together and resume life as we knew it.

At Pesach, we are reminded that we must see ourselves as if we left mitzrayim, as if we personally left those “narrow places” (as the breakdown of the Hebrew name for Egypt suggests). This year, we are, in fact, subjected to narrow places and are suffering.

Israelis love to nonchalantly quip “Avarnu et Par’oh, naavor gam et zeh,” “We survived the Pharoah, we will survive this, too.” But survival is only part of the question. What will happen when we emerge?

When RaShBi first emerged from the cave, he found that he was out of step with the rest of the world.:

They emerged from the cave and saw people who were plowing and sowing. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 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 12 months ... A Divine Voice emerged and said to them: Emerge from your cave. They emerged. Everywhere that Rabbi Elazar would strike, Rabbi Shimon would heal. (BT Shabbat 33b)

Just imagine the 12 holidays of Pesach that RaShBi and his son spent in the cave, each year hoping that this would be the one in which the decree would be lifted and they could emerge.

When the time comes for us to emerge, how will our eyes adjust? Will we burn everything in our sight, like RaShBi, and need another stint before we can come out? Or will we recognize and have a renewed sense of appreciation for the world and for each other, using our power to heal?

We must now ask ourselves how we will actively come together to forge a rebirth and a renaissance of Jewish life when it’s all over. How can we make the most of our time in isolation and reimagine life in the post-coronavirus world? 

Whatever that will be, and whenever it will be, I hope that we do it together.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg is the Union for Reform Judaism’s vice president for Israel and Reform Zionism and the executive director of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg
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