The following story from the Talmud helps us reflect on Parashat Emor:
Elijah the prophet felt conflicted about his job that day. He just knew that it wouldn’t go well, so he tried everything to get away from it. “It’s been 12 years,” said God, “Genug! (enough!) We have to tell him he can come out.” Elijah disagreed. Bar Yochai made him nervous. So much power in such a temperamental vessel was just dangerous. Still, maybe God was right. Twelve years in a cave is a long time and maybe people really can change. Or maybe not.
Shimon ben Yochai, or just “Bar Yochai” as most people called him, couldn’t hold his peace. Whatever came to him – a curse or a blessing – he would just say it. He had no filter and that got him in trouble. One day he opened his big mouth to rail against the Romans and (surprise, surprise), they sentenced him to death. He may not have known when to keep his mouth shut, but he did know when to run, and run he did, into that cave.
Bar Yochai and his son had been praying and learning in there, alone, for 12 years. Since they were fed by a miraculous carob tree and a spring of water, Elijah thought they ought to be physically healthy. But he wondered, what was he walking into? He decided to not go into the cave at all. Instead, he pretended to be walking by and got just close enough to the cave’s entrance to say in his best stage whisper, “Who’s going to tell Bar Yocḥai that the emperor died and his decree has been nullified?” And that worked – well, it sort of worked.
Bar Yochai and his son did come out, but those 12 years had done nothing to soften the Sage’s foul temper. Seeing men working in the fields, he so was furious that they had abandoned Torah study that fire shot from his eyes and burned everything he saw. God cried out, “If you go on like this there will be no world left! Get back to your cave!” And back they went. Elijah wanted to shout out “I told you so!” but thought better of it and kept silent.
A year passed – a very different year from the 12 that had preceded it. This time there were no Romans chasing him; his life was no longer at risk. What had been shelter started to feel like jail. Bar Yochai understood that de-isolating wasn’t as easy as just walking out of the cave. He needed to change himself first.
The day came to try again, and this time Elijah just refused to get involved. God had to do it God-self. “Emerge from your cave” boomed the Divine Voice, and emerge they did. Everyone was nervous – was Bar Yochai different? Would he need to go back again?
At first, he tried to find a sense of equilibrium. His son still went around destroying things, but Bar Yochai followed and repaired the damage. Then, Bar Yochai stopped long enough to really look at people. He saw an old man preparing for Shabbat and putting in extra effort to make it beautiful. Seeing the care that man took for the sake of Shabbat, Bar Yochai calmed his troubled mind. Still difficult and ornery, nevertheless, Bar Yochai, the destroyer, became Bar Yochai the illuminator, a man whose brilliance would light the way for generations to come.
Adapted from the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 33b), this ancient story about a man who self-isolates and then emerges with a different perspective on the world has a lot to tell us about our own lives now. As I write this today, living under a “shelter at home” order from my governor, I am magnetically drawn to the story of Bar Yochai. How do we understand this precautionary tale for ourselves? What do we need to do to turn our own potential for destruction into brilliant illumination?
In Parashat Emor, the Torah reminds us that truth is found in how we structure our time and shape our lives. Inside the meticulously ordered Festival calendar that fills the whole of chapter 23 is the commandment (verses 15-16) to count days for seven weeks “until the day after the seventh week – fifty days” (Lev 23:16). Called S’firat HaOmer, Rabbinic Judaism has understood this period (called, “The Omer”) as beginning on the second night of Passover and concluding with the Festival of Shavuot. We are now in that period. The mitzvah is observed by saying a blessing and then counting the number of days and weeks that have gone by. While each day of the Omer has its own significance, the 33rd day, called Lag BaOmer, which falls on Monday night and Tuesday of this week, stands above them all.
Lag BaOmer marks a number of historical events including the commemoration of Bar Yochai’s death. Following a tradition from the Zohar, the medieval mystical text mythically written by Bar Yochai himself, the anniversary of the passing of a great tzaddik (a righteous person) is called a Yom Hilula (a day of celebration). Lag BaOmer is typically observed as a joyous festival day of celebration with bonfires, dancing, fantastic songs, and, in regular years, a huge crowd gathered around the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Mount Meron just outside of Tzfat (Safed) in Israel. This year, due to social distancing measures, we will undoubtedly celebrate in other ways.
In this era of coronavirus, as we begin to contemplate emerging from our own “shelter in place” isolations, some of us are Elijah – hesitant, fearful, perhaps even a bit cynical. We don’t know what new reality we are confronting, and we might be tempted to just give up. Some of us are Bar Yochai – burning with passion and judgment, and needing to learn a new and gentler way forward. Some of us are like God – ready to take a risk and trust, hoping for the best. Many of us are all three characters at once, feeling skeptical and hopeful, righteous and zealous, scared and joyful. The world has changed, but we have also changed.
We pray, together, that the lessons learned during our isolation, the personal and communal strength we found in this time of such impossible difficulty, will, like the Torah Bar Yochai found in that cave, come to illuminate our lives, our communities, and our world for generations to come.
Cantor David Berger serves as the cantor of KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation in Chicago, IL. Currently pursuing his Ph.D. at the Chicago Theological Seminary, he is honored to be the inaugural Scholar in Residence for the American Conference of Cantors.