Two stories. Both of them in the Babylonian Talmud. The first is about R. Shimon ben Yohai, and the second about R. Aqiva. Both stories go against the grain of what popular opinion is about these two.
R. Shimon ben Yohai is most widely known for spending twelve years in a cave, with his son R. Eliezer and a magical carob tree and an equally magical spring of water, studying Torah. When they finally leave the cave, they end up killing people with their glances. They are so divorced from the world, so totally attached to Torah, and the worship of the Divine, that they cannot understand how people can harvest, and sow, and involve themselves in all the quotidian activities that are the work of the world. God, realizing that they are about to destroy all of creation because of their excessive holiness, sends them back to the cave, to cool down, as it were.
This is the story that is found in the Yerushalmi, the Palestinian Talmud, and Breishit Rabba, the Palestinian midrash collection on Genesis. Both of these works were composed in the 5th-6th century, and therefore earlier than the Babylonian Talmud. In the Babylonian Talmud. There is a story before the story. A story that answers the age old question: why did a father and his son end up in a cave for twelve years?
So this is the story:
R. Yehduah, R. Yosi, and R. Shimon were sitting and R. Yehudah ben Gerim was sitting amongst them. The three great Sages were sitting together speaking of important things.
R. Yehudah began by saying: “How wonderful are the deeds of this nation? They have set up marketplaces, they built bridges, and they established bathhouses.” Hearing this, R. Yosi was silent. He didn’t say anything.
R. Shimon b. Yohai, on the other hand, responded in anger: “Everything that they built, they only built for their own benefit. They set up markets to put prostitutes in them. Bathhouses to spoil themselves. Bridges in order to collect taxes from those who used them.”
When they were done, everybody went on their way and it seems that Yehudah ben Gerim told others of the conversation. Eventually, word of the conversation reached the ears of the government, and those ears were none too happy.
The representatives of the government declared that R. Yehudah who praised the accomplishments of Rome, should be elevated. R. Yosi who did not object to R. Shimon’s words should be exiled to the Galilee. R. Shimon himself, who demeaned Rome, would be executed.
R. Shimon and his son Elazar fled and hid in the bet midrash/the study hall. As the Roman decrees became more severe, hiding in the bet midrash became less and less tenable. R. Shimon was worried that the Romans would torture his wife (who was bring food to him and his son Elazar every day) in order to find out where he was hiding and then they would discover him.
At that point they left and hid in the cave with the magic carob tree and the spring.
This is a story of resistance. R. Shimon, who spent every waking hour studying Torah, would not let R. Yehudah get away with accepting the Roman accomplishments at face value. He demanded that the same critical gaze be applied to the marketplaces, the bridges, the bathhouses, to show that the Romans were engaged in both a cultural war, and an oppressive colonialism. That this understanding was subversive and dangerous to the Romans, is obvious in their reaction. If these were just the angry mutterings of an old man, they would not demand his execution.
R. Aharon Shmuel Tameres, an early 20th century rabbi, said that they worst part of the enslavement in Egypt was the intellectual enslavement. The Egyptians convinced the Jews that is was right for them, the Egyptians, to rule, and for the Jews to be enslaved. Tameres says that the beginning of redemption was understanding that this intellectual edifice which allowed for the imperial rule, and for the enslavement of human beings was built on an edifice of sand. At the first intellectual poke, it all came down.
This was the reason that the Romans wanted to silence R. Shimon bar Yohai—he was casting doubt upon the rightness of Roman rule. The accomplishments of Roman architecture, and the genius of Roman city planning, that which came from and proved the divine right of Roman rule—was nothing more than an exercise in vanity and theft. It was not something to admire.
It is not surprising that R. Shimon and his son went and hid in the bet midrash, among and with Torah. The study of Torah, the hafoch bah vahafoch bah, the turning over and over of the wisdom of the Bible and the Sages, is the way by which the fortress of resistance is built. Wrapping oneself in Torah, inures one to the bombastic claims of empire. At least that’s what Shimon and his son thought.
Lets leave R. Shimon for now.
Aqiva is popularly known for his support of bar Kokhbah, the general who led an armed insurrection against Rome, and for being martryed. Hidden amongst these stories, is a quieter story, a story that recalls and recreates a different Aqiva. That story is also found in the Babylonian Talmud.
Once the wicked Government, the Talmud tells us, issued a decree forbidding the Jews to study Torah. Pappus son of Judah came and found Rabbi Aqiva bringing gatherings together in the forum and teaching Torah.
This is an act of nonviolent resistance. Instead of hiding in a basement and studying Torah, Rabbi Aqiva organized public Torah study. The way the verbs go by in the Talmud narrative style, one might overlook the work, the persuasion, the hutzpah it took to bring crowds of people to the forum, the place of Roman power.
Pappus son of Judah came and found Rabbi Aqiva bringing gatherings together in the forum and teaching Torah. He said to him: “Aqiva, are you not afraid of the Government?”
This is the logical question.
Aqiva answers by way of a somewhat complicated parable, the upshot of which is that if Aqiva and the Jews stop teaching Torah then they are doing the Romans’ work for them. The Roman occupation is a cultural war and Aqiva refused to let the Romans win by default. If the Romans were going to stop the Jews from studying Torah, they would have to do it physically. Intimidation and threats were not going to work.
So Aqiva stood in the forum and taught Torah. And the Romans had to arrest him in order to stop him.
These two stories of resistance speak to me very strongly in this moment.
There is a mishnah in Pirkei Avot, which many of you might know.
אם אין אני לי מי לי, וכשאני לעצמי מה אני, ואם לא עכשיו אימתי.
If I am not for myself, who will be for me; and if I am only for myself what am I; and if not now, then when.
The first and second parts or phrases of the teaching move in opposite directions. The first phrase moves inward. If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am not grounded in my culture, my texts, my people then מי לי, who will be for me? that is who is my community, who are my people? The first move is the move in which I define myself inside the four cubits of the bet midrash, the literal and the figurative bet midrash. This was R. Shimon bar Yohai, and it was from this that he drew the strength to resist the empire.
The second move is outward: If I am only for myself, that is, if my entire mission is to develop my own soul, to further my own study and practice, to know myself better and deeper—if that is it, then what am I? If I move toward a place of solipsistic comfort, מה אני, what am I? Unless I move back outwards beyond myself and my community and the four cubits of the bet midrash I cannot really define myself. This was what R. Aqiva knew and why he did not retreat into some basement to study Torah, but went into the forum to confront Rome.
Finally we are, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King “now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.” אם לא עכשיו אימתי, if not now when. We are living in a moment when it seems that the institutions of civil society, the foundations of morality, and practices of democracy are all being corrupted and swept away. This is not a test.
In this moment, this עכשיו, this now, we have to look past the intellectual slavery of white supremacy, and call out the evils of this, our empire. We have to turn back the culture of racism, and sexism, and Islamophobia, and antisemitism, and sally forth into the forum with the Torah in which the Adam was created singular so that no person could claim superiority; in which everyone was created in the Divine image.
But we have to also stay grounded in the bet midrash, and not only grounded, but go deep in to the bet midrash. We must own the texts of our tradition and brandish them as the grounds of justice on which we stand. We must do this in the face of those who will doubt our claim to this tradition—who speciously state that Torah has nothing to say about justice; or even worse, say that Torah supports those who are unjust, here and in Israel/Palestine. We must do this also in the face of others who dismiss the utility of this tradition, who question why we waste time wrestling with these texts.
Because if we are to truly turn back evil, if we are to resist the triumphalist trumpets of Trumpism, we must be standing on solid ground. The solid ground that we have cultivated in the study halls, in the synagogues on shabbatot, around tables at the seder; that ground from which we loudly and unapologetically remind ourselves and all who will listen that God introduced Godself on the world stage by recounting the divine destruction of an oppressive slave state. “I am God, your God, who took you out of Egypt out of the house of bondage.” I am God, who despises cruelty and oppression.
This is followed by the prohibition against idolatry.
Make no mistake that systemic oppression is idolatry. It is a system which denies that all people were created in the divine image.
And so we are here tonight and tomorrow, recusing ourselves from the world for these 25 hours, retreating into ourselves, so that individually and communally we might reflect on the sins of omission and commission that brought us to this place. We are here standing in our vulnerability before God and each other and we aim to rededicate ourselves to the proposition that only God is God, that fallible humans are not gods, that all are created in the image of God, and that we must struggle every day to live up to that standard.
ואם לא עכשיו אימתי?
If not now, when?
This drashah was originally delivered at the Shtibl minyan after Kol Nidrei.