This piece of Lag B’Omer #TorahForTheResistance is part of a campaign by young rabbis, rabbinical students, and students of religion about Jewish resistance to Trump through the lens of faith, Judaism, and spirituality.
Fire is at the heart of the semi-holiday Lag B’Omer. Fire is a symbol of the force of transformation; it has the power to change matter from one form to another. Fire is a symbol of passion, light, energy, and regeneration, as well as destruction, anger and judgement. Like water, fire is bivalent. It is both a positive and negative symbol, capable of sustaining as well as destroying life.1
[pullquote align=right] How do we hold our fiery, clear-eyed moral and political critiques while still fully engaging with compassion?
[/pullquote]This Saturday night, flames will leap from the smoldering logs of bonfires, filling the air with smoke, and shining bright light on all who gather round. This Lag B’Omer, we find ourselves in the midst of a process of lighting and kindling the fires of #JewishResistance. As we seek to ignite power into our movements, we face the ever-present destructive potential to cause harm within our best efforts for good.
To help reflect on the harm we can cause our allies when the fires of righteousness are burning, I’d like to share a story from the Talmud about the first and second century #JewishResistance to the Roman occupation of Palestine that speaks to the present moment in which we find ourselves in activism communities. This story features Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the great talmudic rabbi and mythic revealer of the zoharic mystical tradition. Referred to in the Zohar by the honorific title, Botzina Kadisha (sacred torch), Shimon Bar Yochai’s life was a fire that both illuminated and destroyed. He was one of the most insightful Rabbis of his time, teaching about the perilous facades of state power and explicating the structural oppression all around them.2 At the same time, he was a man whose colleagues were afraid to leave their children alone with him for fear of violence.3 Lag B’Omer honors the yartzeit of Shimon Bar Yochai and gives us an opportunity to learn from his life and legacy.
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s teacher, Rabbi Akiva, was one of the greatest teachers of #TorahForTheResistance. Rabbi Akiva lived his life in the shadow the Roman regime. The Romans were forever seeking to squash the resistance of the Jewish people with forced cultural assimilation, severe restrictions on religious liberties, massive tax burdens, and desecration of the Jew’s most sacred times and spaces.
Over his lifetime, Rabbi Akiva built a mass movement of 24,000 students who fought to preserve Jewish traditions and oppose the Roman occupation. Some say these comrades fought their battles in the beit midrash learning the laws and stories needed to preserve Jewish life and fight off forced cultural assimilation. Some say the comrades eventually took up arms and fought in the armed rebellion lead by Bar Kokhba against the Romans. Whatever the tactics of their movement may have been.
Their efforts ended in disaster. In Masechet Yevamot, the Talmud teaches:
All 12,000 pairs of Rabbi Akiva’s students died because they did not treat each other with respect. The world was desolate, until Rabbi Akiva came to our rabbis in the south, and taught them.
Rabbi Meir, Rabbi, Yehuda, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon [Bar Yochai], and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamoa.
They [re]established Torah at that moment.
It was taught: They all died between Pesach and Shavuot.4
An earlier version of this story in Bereishit Rabbah teaches that Rabbi Akiva’s students died because, “their eyes were narrow with one another”.5 Barry Holtz, citing scholarship by Aaron Amit,6 argues that the text is saying they lacked intellectual honesty.7 I would like to suggest that the midrash may be saying they lacked ideological generosity. The Bereishit Rabbah version of the story ends like the talmudic version with Rabbi Akiva teaching a small new generation of students, only in this version he has a concluding charge for his students:
My first sons died only because their eyes were narrow with each other in Torah. See to it that you do not do as they did.
They [the new students] arose and filled the land of Israel with Torah.8
We can imagine Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai coming into his power as a Rabbi with this warning from his revered teacher ringing in his ears: “My first students died because they did not treat each other with respect, and did not show ideological generosity in their learning with one another.” Shimon Bar Yochai’s intimate circle of comrades bore the weight of this loss, and they tried to avoid these interpersonal mistakes in their diminished, but never defeated, movement of Torah learning and Jewish life.
The next chapter in the life of Shimon Bar Yochai is told in the Talmud in Masechet Shabbat 33b-34a:
“Some time later, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yose, and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai were sitting around learning Torah with a new friend, Yehuda ben Gerim.
Rabbi Yehuda opened the discussion by saying, “How pleasant are the actions of the Romans – they have established marketplaces, bridges and bathhouses for us.” [Meaning, the quality of life in these parts has really has improved since the Romans conquered our land and built all these public works.] Rabbi Yosei was silent.
Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai responded, “Everything that they establish, they establish only for their own purposes! They established marketplaces to place prostitutes in them, bathhouses to pamper themselves, and bridges to collect taxes from our people.” [Meaning, these infrastructure projects only serve the exploitation and domination of our people at the hands of our oppressors and impose foreign and hurtful values systems into our public sphere.] At the end of the day, Yehuda ben Gerim left his new friends the Rabbis with the debate of the merits and downsides of Roman occupation still racing through his mind. Yehuda ben Gerim related the debate to everyone he encountered, and was tragically overheard by a spy of the regime. The Romans tried the Rabbis in court and ruled: ‘Yehuda, who elevated the Roman regime shall be elevated, Yose, who remained silent, shall be exiled to a different city, and Simon who denounced the government, shall be killed.’
… Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son, Rabbi Elazar, fled town and hid in a cave. A miracle occurred, and a carob tree and a spring of water were created for them to sustain themselves in hiding. Every day they followed the same routine: They removed their clothes, sat covered in sand up to their necks, and studied Torah all day long in this position. Only for the daily prayers would they rise, dress, pray, and return to learning Torah in the sand. For twelve years they dwelled in this cave. Finally, Elijah the prophet came and stood at the entrance to the cave and informed Shimon Bar Yochai that the emperor had died and his death sentence had been commuted.
When they emerged from their cave, they looked around and saw the normal people of the town going about their business, plowing and sowing their fields. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai raged: ‘These people abandon the rewards of eternal life [earned through Torah study] to engage in the ordinary livelihood matters of this world?!’
Every place they cast their gaze was immediately incinerated – fire shot from their eyes.
A bat kol [divine voice] emerged and said to them: ‘did you emerge from your cave to destroy my world?! Return to your cave.’
They returned to their cave and sat for another 12 months…
A bat kol appeared and said to them, ‘emerge from your cave.’
Everywhere that Rabbi Elazar would strike, Rabbi Shimon would heal.
As the sun was setting on the eve of Shabbat, they saw an old man running home in the twilight, holding two bunches of sweet smelling myrtle branches.
They said to him: ‘Why do you have these?’
He said to them: ‘In honor of Shabbat.’
They said to him: ‘Isn’t one bunch of myrtle sufficient to honor shabbat?’
He said: ‘One bunch is for, “Remember the Shabbat day to keep it holy” (Ex. 20:8) and the other is for, “Observe the Shabbat day to keep it holy” (Dt. 5:12).’
[This explanation makes no sense in Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s understanding of the proper interpretation of these verses of Torah. Nothing in the halacha as he knows it (and he really knows it) says anything about two bunches of Myrtle. They might be used to say extra blessings over good smells on Shabbat, but they don’t do anything to help one observe these verses from the Torah.] He said to his son: See how beloved the mitzvot are to Israel. Their minds were put at ease.”9
This is a long and difficult story. Each line deserves proper attention and consideration and could be studied for hours on end with a trusted hevrutah (study partner). I hope this story will be evocative and speak for itself to the moment in which you find yourself. When I read this text it speaks to some of the hardest questions I have been struggling with of late. Particularly, how do we hold our fiery, clear-eyed moral and political critiques while still fully engaging with compassion and empathy the people around us who may not share our analysis? I will offer a few reflections on this story that speak to my question of this moment in activist community.
In the opening machloket/debate about the relative merits and evils of Roman occupation, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai experiences a huge ideological gulf between himself and Rabbi Yehuda. These are two of the precious few Rabbis tasked with preserving the traditions of Torah after the enormous loss of their predecessors and the persecution of their teachers. Rabbi Yehuda’s comment, “how pleasant are the the actions of this nation [the Romans]” may have deeply offended Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai – it erases all the hardship and destruction suffered by the Jews, and parrots the language of their oppressor, sublimating the violence enacted by the Romans for the sake of “progress” and “empire.” How can Rabbi Yehuda not see how his words erase the experience of his own marginalized, hyper-vulnerable people by embracing the mechanism of the cultural erasure of the Jewish people?!
[pullquote align=left] He burns alive the first people he encounters with the fire of his judgment.
[/pullquote]In the story, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai says none of this, despite how high-stakes the conversation might be. He replies with his own understanding of the self-serving effects of the actions of the Romans, and the conversation eventually ends. There is even space for silence from Rabbi Yose, who may not know whom he agrees with, or simply has no opinion on the matter. We, the readers, presume the Rabbis leave their conversation with their relationships intact, able to healthily return to the debate whenever they feel the need, and continue their ongoing collaborative project of teaching and learning Torah.
When Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is forced into isolation in the cave by the warrant for his death, these bonds of communal accountability and responsibility break down. Cut off from community, all he has access to are his own insights and teachings. In this place of deep isolation, driven by fear, persecution, and suffering, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai learns some amazing things. He is said to emerge from the cave with new mystical teachings about the functionings of God and the Universe that change the way Jews will forever see the world around them. However, he also burns alive the first people he encounters with the fire of his judgment and the condemnation coming out of his eyes. He has become so focused on his own ideological path of walking in the world that he cannot see the farmers working their fields as innocent comrades, living under the same oppressive circumstances and trying to do the best they can with the learning, resources, and opportunities available to them. We do not know what other marginalized identities these anonymous characters may carry to give them more or less power, privilege and opportunity in their society. Neither does Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. All he notices is that they are not learning Torah. Before even exchanging a single word, he assumes that the people he encounters have abandoned him and his lifelong project of Torah, and is forced by a divine voice back into his cave, condemned by the divine voice as a fiery force of destruction.
[pullquote align=right] Living in perilous times has the potential to ignite great fires within us that burn away our old understandings.
[/pullquote]We don’t know what exactly happened in those next twelve months, but something changed for Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. When he emerges next, he again encounters someone doing something that makes absolutely no sense to him, but this time he is curious to understand why and inquires. Even when he ideologically disagrees with the logic of the old man’s answer of why he has the two bundles of myrtle, Shimon Bar Yochai is able to see the holiness and love in the man’s intent, and his faith in his people is restored.
It will not be an altogether easy path going forward for Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. His judgement and condemnation will be aroused many more times. He will continue to cause harm to those around him, but he will also go on to teach some of the most radical, earth-shaking, Torah the Jews have ever known. This is not to say that one justifies the other. Especially given the apologetics that are still employed to excuse the horrendous actions of charismatic male religious leaders every day.
By looking at Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai as a cautionary archetype and not excusing his behaviors, we are reminded that living in perilous times has the potential to ignite great fires within us that burn away our old understandings of the world we live in, and shed light on paths of transformation, regeneration, and collective liberation. The same strength of ideological conviction required to light these fires of change can also burn those who have the potential to be our allies by our side who may not share the exact same language, methodology, or approach to change. We need caves of safety to retreat into with like-minded comrades to stay nourished and deepen our transformative, radical torah of change. And I draw caution from this story not to mistake the cave for the society we wish to live within.
May we have the strength to maintain the ties of connection to our comrades of now and our comrades yet to be. May we be able to patiently listen to the proverbial old men in our lives who at first make no sense to us, and may we harness the fires of our ancestors to guide us in our fiery work for life, together.
Footnotes for futher exploration
- The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols, by Ellen Frankel and Betsy Platkin Teutsch, pg. 53
- BT Shabbat 33b-34a
- BT Bava Metzia 17a-b
- BT Yevamot 62b. This story will later become connected to the mourning practices that are observed during the counting of the Omer – the period between Pesach and Shavuot. Traditionally, people abstain from cutting hair and getting married except for (or until) Lag B’Omer – the day that became connected to the cessation of the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students.
- Genesis Rabbah 61:3, “למה? שהיתה עיניהם צרה אילו ואילו”
- “The Death of Rabbi Akiva’s Disciples: A Literary History” by Aaron Amit, Journal of Jewish Studies Vol. LVI, No. 2 Autumn 2005, pg. 270
- Rabbi Akiva: Sage of the Talmud,” by Barry W. Holtz, 2017, pg. 157
- Genesis Rabbah 61:3, Barry Holtz translation
- I have tried to keep this presentation of story true to the original talmudic text while inserting a few edits and omissions, and ending the story before the next series of twists and turns. These editorial decisions are for the sake of clarity and ease of access for the reader.