The Day the Rabbi Emerged From Quarantine
What does it look like to “return to normal life” after a long quarantine? We can learn from Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, whose life we celebrate on Lag B’Omer this year on Tuesday, May 12.
The Roman occupiers of the land of Israel wanted to execute Rabbi bar Yochai for criticizing their rule. He and his son, Rabbi Elazar, isolated themselves in a cave. No Zoom. No Instacart. No Amazon. The men survived on carob and water. They prayed and studied Torah all day. With no distractions, they grew in spiritual stature until they were like angels on earth.
When they emerged from the cave after 12 or 13 years, reality came as a shock. (And you thought your quarantine was long!) They saw farmers plowing their fields, people going about their daily life.
But their reality was meditation, study and a total dedication to the Divine. They could not reconcile the two. Are people blind to their purpose, to strive higher and unite with the Divine? Where is a world that shares these values?
They struggled with this question until, on Friday eve, they saw an old man running while holding two bundles of sweet-smelling myrtle. When asked, the old man told them that the two bunches were in honor of the Shabbat. Two bunches because of the two mitzvot in the Torah to “remember” Shabbat and “keep” the Shabbat.
"See how precious are the mitzvot (commandments) to the people of Israel!" Rabbi Shimeon said to his son. Then their minds were put at ease.
They understood then that our goal should not be to solely reach upwards towards G-d, but rather to sanctify the mundane by drawing the Divine downwards into our daily pursuits.
Every event is an opportunity for growth and spiritual development—whether it is positive or negative, pleasant or unpleasant, or painful or pleasurable. Every moment in life presents us with a mission; we just have to ask ourselves what that mission is.
Now we are isolated, separated from each other and from our normal routine. Yet we can use our time to the fullest. It can be a time of introspection; study; and connection to ourselves, our families and G-d.
And just like those rabbis, one day—hopefully soon—we also will emerge from isolation into society. We will be interacting with others and the world around us. The story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai teaches us how to integrate these two seemingly opposite realities.
Even when we return to “the world” and our relationships with others, we need to bring along the best qualities of “the cave”: the slower pace; the yearning for transcendence; and the time for study, prayer and introspection.
At the same time, we need to recognize the unique beauty of encountering G-d in the middle of a fast-paced, busy “life.” Shabbat, keeping kosher and all the mitzvot are built-in opportunities for us not just to connect to the Divine, but also to integrate G-d into our daily lives and reveal His presence in everything we do and encounter. As Rabbi Shimon observed to his son, “See how precious are the mitzvot to the people of Israel!”
Rabbi Yossi Yaffe is the rabbi of Chabad of the Shoreline in Guilford.