Emor begins by reminding the priests of their distinction from the rest of Israel, of how careful they must be to avoid ritual impurity. I couldn’t help but recall the peculiar story (b. Shabbat 33b) of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi) purifying a marketplace so the city’s priests could again circulate freely. This deed comes at the end of a journey of his isolation and reintegration in society.
This coming Monday night-Tuesday marks Lag b’Omer, the yahrzeit of Rashbi. Since isolation and reintegration are on our minds these days, let’s accept the invitation of our canon and calendar and explore this most fascinating chapter in the life of one of our most important sages.
One could describe Shimon Bar Yochai as extreme. His world was the Beit Midrash, pure Torah his pursuit. Disciplined in his study and rigorous in his judgment, he also had strong political opinions: All those bathhouses, bridges and marketplaces erected by the Roman occupiers were meant, he said, merely to serve the imperial interest.
Before long, the authorities got wind of his critique and Rashbi became a hunted man, fleeing with his son to a cave for 12 years, in which their minds were as immersed in Torah study and prayer as were their bodies in sand (up to their necks).
They had, in essence, disappeared from the earth.
Twelve years later, their death sentence annulled, the prophet Elijah informed them that they could again come out. But how does one return to the world after such isolation?
Not very well, it turns out. So deeply linked to the divine, so utterly disconnected from reality, they were not ready to reenter a society engaged as it is with worldly matters. Rashbi and his son burned with their eyes every one who did not solely study Torah.
A heavenly voice rebuked them: “You have emerged ... to destroy My world? Return to your cave.”
As the story continues, Rashbi gradually learns to mitigate and channel the divine fire burning within him. When they reemerge after an additional year, Rashbi is one step further. Now he heals and repairs whomever his son burns. Yet he still hasn’t internalized how to really reintegrate.
One might ask, why did they simply not stay in the cave then?
To live a secluded life is not a Jewish ideal. To say more: Judaism’s essence is the intersection of the profane and the holy. We create realms of sanctity through mitzvot.
When Rashbi finally meets an old man going out of his way to honor Shabbat, his agitated soul finally finds solace. Rashbi understands that this man, even though he might not be a Torah scholar, still loves the mitzvot. He now sees that Torah is not void even from those who engage in worldly pursuits.
Many end the story here, but that still leaves Rashbi apart from the world. His mind is at ease, yes, but he is unable to share his Torah in this state. What then are the 13 years in the cave worth when Rashbi cannot find a way back to be part of the world and contribute to it?
Rashbi’s son-in-law brings him to the bathhouse, to tend to his wounds and heal the skin decay that transpired in the cave. In the very place which he formerly condemned, Rashbi now finds healing.
His bodily restoration leads him to offer his services to “heal” the city where he was cured.
Only here, I think, does Rashbi come full cycle, understanding that this world in its totality, with its humans, is a vessel for the divine flow and that Torah needs to emanate into it, not be apart from it. He understands now that the divine flow of goodness can only be shared in our mortal, profane reality, by taking care of ourselves and our community.
I want to encourage you to use this time of isolation to learn and to take care of yourselves. Take this time as a chance to look inward, study some Torah, but also take good care of yourself in your human body. If you need help, reach out — so that this can be a time of inner growth from which we emerge, unlike Rashbi, ready to help to rebuild our society. JN
Nitzan Stein Kokin is the rabbi at Temple Beth El in Phoenix.