Sacred rhythms and rites fill much of Parashat Emor. From Yom Kippur to the three pilgrimage festivals of Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot, we see how ancient our holy days are. Though more modern glosses have moved the meaning of these occasions beyond their agricultural roots, millennia later we still “celebrate each at its appointed time” (Lev. 23:4). Beneath these marked moments, we also see a communal undercurrent: in obligating sacrifice for each of these observances, the Israelites are commanded to leave their homes and places of comfort to join together in Jerusalem. The collective movement, gathering beyond haven, and trekking into community, underscores both a value and worldview: the sacred is not found sequestered in safety, but rather, it is realized in moving into a world of others.
This perspective is a distinct departure from that of many other cultures and religious paths. Asceticism, monastic life, and Sages sequestered away from a world awash in sin, and these visions of the holy are often associated with religious and philosophical ideals. For the ancient Greeks, this was symbolized by retreating to caves, in which it was said that wisdom, wealth, and wonder could be found. As Dr. Yulia Ustinova noted, the Greek saw “actual physical descent into the darkness of a cave as a way to enlightenment and the sojourn in a cave a means of acquiring ultimate, superhuman knowledge.” (Caves and the Ancient Greek Mind [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009], p.2).
The most famous example of this is likely the most noted cave story in history. Plato imagines a group of people who have spent their entire existence chained within a cave. Behind them, a fire burns, illuminating the cave, but they have no knowledge of the fire, for all they see is the cave wall, and the shadows cast upon it by the light. All they believe is what they see right before them. But, should one of the people come to be freed from their bondage, and come to see the larger world beyond the wall of shadows, their sense of both reality and purpose would be dramatically altered. In leaving the cave, they would be dazzled by the wonders that lie beyond it. But in returning to the cave, in recounting the realized realities, the liberated person would also struggle to readjust to the cave’s darkness. In fear, the other people would reject the possibility of a larger world and fear the blindness that pursuit of such a world might entail (Republic, 514a–520a).
For Plato (writing in the voice of Socrates), this is the blessing and curse of philosophical inquiry; in the depths of a cave one may achieve lofty truths beyond those bounds, but the world will forever reject such truths.
Amidst a number of Jewish cave stories, the most noted one emerges centuries after the biblical period in the tales of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Much mystical mythology surrounds this Rabbi. The Talmud recounts the following tale:
Rabbi Shimon and his son Rabbi Elazar went and they hid in a cave. A miracle occurred and a carob tree was created for them as well as a spring of water. They would remove their clothes and sit covered in sand up to their necks. They would study Torah all day in that manner. At the time of prayer, they would dress, cover themselves, and pray, and they would again remove their clothes afterward so that they would not become tattered. They sat in the cave for twelve years. Elijah the Prophet came and stood at the entrance to the cave and said: Who will inform bar Yocḥai that the emperor died and his decree has been abrogated? They emerged from the cave, and saw people who were plowing and sowing. Rabbi Shimon bar Yocḥai said: “These people abandon eternal life of Torah study and engage in mundane life?!” Every place that Rabbi Shimon and his son Rabbi Elazar directed their eyes was immediately incinerated. 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. (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 33b)
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, much like those in Plato’s story, hid from the world and achieved great mystical truths. Some say that within the confines of the cavern he wrote down the Zoharic secrets of Kabbalah. In emerging from the cave, the clarity of these truths led him to harshly judge (and kill) everyone he observed. The Divine Voice in this story makes it clear the purpose of life is not such truth, but ultimately the healing of the world.
Dr. Charlotte Fonrobert notes the marked parallelism between the allegory of Plato and the tale of Shimon. They are stories about the acquisition of deeper truths amidst the backdrop of a cave, and the struggle for the person possessing such truth to exist with others. For Dr. Fonrobert, the difference in the trajectory of the two tales suggests that the Talmud is attempting to challenge Greek ideals and virtues (Charlotte E. Fonrobert, “Plato in Rabbi Shimeon bar Yohai’s Cave: the Talmudic Inversion of Plato’s Politics of Philosophy,” AJS Review 31 , pp. 277-96). For Plato, the ideal is truth, and the enlightened person must suffer living alongside the ignorance of humanity in darkened caves. For Shimon, the realization is that ultimately truth must serve a higher ideal: the healing of humanity in the brokenness and blessing of the world.
In our sacred moments, we are urged to leave our caves of comfort and gather with others, enmeshed in a larger world. In this state, we will surely find the full range of humanity, and encounter values and priorities not our own. But this remains our Jewish ideal for what defines holy space and time. The Divine Voice calls to us: “Emerge from your cave.”
Rabbi Ben Spratt is the senior associate rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York, NY. His passion continues to be building community beyond existent walls and boundaries and, in partnership with many others, has sparked Shireinu, Tribe, New Day Fellowship, and Minyan.