Lag Ba’omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, marks the death of the talmudic sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, also known by his acronym Rashbi. On this day, it is customary to tell his story (TB Shabbat 33b). This year, as we find ourselves isolated ‘in our caves’, his story feel particularly relevant.
Rashbi’s casual critique of the benefits of Roman rule in Judea is reported to the authorities, and he is condemned to death. Rashbi goes into hiding with his son, first taking shelter in a Beit Midrash. He then realizes he is putting his wife at risk of being tortured by the soldiers in order to disclose his hiding place, and so he finds shelter in a cave. Over the next 12 years, he maintains an ascetic lifestyle, immersed in prayer and study with his son, nourished by a carob tree and a brook just at the cave’s entrance.
There’s a postscript to this story that is less well known (TB Shabbat 33b/34a):
(Rabbi Shimon) said: Since a miracle happened for me, I will go and repair something (for the sake of others) as it is written: “And Jacob came in peace…” (Genesis 33:18).
Rav said: Whole in his body, whole in his money, whole in his Torah.
“And he graced the countenance of the city”;
Rav said: He established a currency for them.
And Shmuel said: He established marketplaces for them.
And Rabbi Yoḥanan said: He established bathhouses for them.
He said: Is there something that needs repair?
They said to him: There is a place where there is uncertainty with regard to ritual impurity and the priests are inconvenienced to circumvent it.
He said: Is there a person who knows that there was a presumption of ritual purity here?
An elder said to him: Here ben Zakkai planted and cut the teruma of lupines. He also did so. Everywhere that (the ground) was hard, he pronounced it ritually pure, and every place that (the ground) was soft, he marked it (as impure).
After twelve years isolated in a cave, Rashbi emerges with a renewed appreciation for his dependence on society’s infrastructure. He sets out to repay his debt and offer his contribution. He sees this as a sacred duty, anchored in the midrashic interpretation of the verse describing Jacob as arriving ‘shalem’, in peace and intact, from his journey home away from Laban, and ‘he graced the countenance of the city’.
The rabbis interpret Jacob’s ‘grace’ as civic contributions; he establishes a currency, marketplaces, and bathhouses. It is striking that these three features are precisely the infrastructure brought by the Romans to Judea that Rashbi initially criticized:
Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai responded and said: Everything that they established, they established only for their own purposes.
They established marketplaces, to place prostitutes in them;
bathhouses, to pamper themselves;
bridges, to collect taxes from (all who pass over) them.
It appears that Rashbi’s period in isolation enabled him to come full circle. He is now able to appreciate not only the value of civic duty, but is ready to take up civic obligations himself.
His own contribution is to remove an inconvenience for a small group in a particular locality. Now the Kohanim, who until that point needed to take a long detour to avoid becoming impure due to some unmarked graves, can go about directly and confidently.
As we contemplate our own transition from quarantine and social isolation, Rashbi’s own story may hold wisdom that will be key to emerge shalem, wholesome and in peace, from our experience of isolation. We may be critical of society and individuals. The key is to be less cynical and undertake to fix something, ameliorate the lives of others, both as a sacred duty and as the sense of purpose that enables us to emerge shalem, at peace and intact.