Lessons on Gratitude from Rabbi Shimon
Every year Lag B’Omer is a light and festive holiday, usually celebrated with picnics in a park, bonfires, and songs. This year we can’t do those things together, but we can ponder two Lag B’Omer related lessons.
Ever since the night of the second Seder, we’ve been counting the number of each day. It’s a mitzvah called “Sefirat HaOmer” and it culminates on the 49th day, the day leading us into the Holiday of Shavuot.
Lag B’Omer is the 33rd day in the count. It’s a Holiday on two accounts. In the times of the Roman domination of Israel in the 2nd century, a plague began on Passover that struck the students of the Torah (whether this was a real plague or a coordinated string of violence from the Romans is another question). Thousands died, but on the 33rd day of the Omer count, the plague ceased, so it was designated as a day for celebration.
The other reason for festivities on Lag B’Omer is that it is the yahrtzeit of the great Kabbalist, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Rabbi Shimon is credited with composing the Zohar, the primary source of Jewish mysticism and spirituality. Since it is his profound teachings that have illuminated us since the proliferation of the Zohar about 700 years ago, we celebrate his life on this day.
The events that made Rabbi Shimon into this extraordinary luminary are intriguing and are elaborated upon in the Talmud. One day, Rabbi Shimon and two of his peers were discussing the Roman presence in Israel. “Rabbi Yehuda opened and said: How pleasant are the actions of this nation, the Romans, as they established marketplaces, established bridges, and established bathhouses. Rabbi Yossi was silent. Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai 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; and bridges, to collect taxes from all who pass over them.”
Although these words were said in a private conversation, they spread quickly across the country. When the Romans heard them, they ruled: Yehuda, who praised the Roman regime, shall be elevated and appointed as head of the Sages. Yossi, who remained silent, shall be exiled from his home in Judea as punishment and sent to the city of Tzippori in the Galilee. And Shimon, who denounced the government, shall be killed.
Rabbi Shimon decided he wasn’t going to just sit there and let himself be executed. With his son, Rabbi Elazar, they fled and hid in a cave for 13 years. The cave had a carob tree by its entrance and there was spring inside to provide them fresh water. Nonetheless, it was an exceptionally grueling existence. In order to preserve their only set of garments, 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 get dressed and pray, and then they would remove their clothes once more. Learning continuously in the cave for so many years elevated both the breadth and depth of their understanding. It is even told that Elijah the Prophet would join them and teach them the secrets of the Torah.
They were able to safely exit the cave when they overheard that the Caesar had died and hence all his decrees, including the call for their execution, were terminated.
Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, Rabbi Shimon’s son-in-law, heard of his father-in-law’s reappearance and went out to greet him. Eventually, their conversation turned to Torah. Previously, when Rabbi Shimon would raise a difficulty, Rabbi Pinchas would respond to him with twelve answers. Yet upon his exit from the cave, when Rabbi Pinchas would raise a difficulty, Rabbi Shimon would respond with twenty-four answers.
Rabbi Pinchas brought him into the bathhouse and began tending to his skin. Rabbi Shimon had cracks in the skin on his body and the pain would bring tears to his eyes. Rabbi Pinchas said to Rabbi Shimon, “Woe is me, that I have seen you like this.”
One might think that after thirteen years of isolation and deprivation, Rabbi Shimon would respond with bitterness. Instead he replied, “Happy are you that you have seen me like this, as had you not seen me like this, you would not have found in me this prominence in Torah.”
While the price to pay was enormous, Rabbi Shimon saw what came out of it.
The knowledge he gained was priceless. What he learned and eventually taught would inspire the Jewish people for generations. R’ Shimon didn’t minimize his suffering, but he didn’t deny the benefit as well. He recognized what he gained through the hardship and was grateful.
Although we can’t compare to R’ Shimon’s ordeal, we’ve been isolating now for weeks. Besides suffering from loneliness, many of us have lost employment, health, and perhaps a loved one.
But are there things we have gained? Have we found time to do things around the house that we’d never attempted? Did we view shows or read books that we never would have had time for? Did we celebrate Passover over Zoom with relatives we hadn’t seen in ages? Have we spent more time with our partners and children than ever before? Did we discover newfound gratitude for the things we’re missing? The whole world is in a cave now. Can we follow R’ Shimon’s example of seeing some good in our isolation?
Furthermore, Rabbi Shimon did something extraordinary once he exited the cave. He said, “Since a miracle transpired for me, I will go and repair something for the sake of others in gratitude for God’s kindness.” Rabbi Shimon then researched the history of a nearby cemetery, carefully demarcating its borders thereby allowing passage upon an adjacent road.
We don’t know when this epidemic will end, but when we come through, could we see ourselves being similarly generous and thoughtful? What would we give as our gift to the community?
Lag B’Omer celebrates the end of a plague and revels in the life of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. While we’d love the plague to likewise end on this day, we can still learn quite a bit from Rabbi Shimon.
Are we able to see the good we’ve gained from this dire situation? Will we continue to hold on to that gratitude as we move on, and what will we do to show that gratitude after the epidemic ends?
Have a happy Lag B’Omer
P.S. If you have recognitions of gratitude or an idea for the future that you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you.