Y’all know I love a weird Talmudic story, especially when it speaks to our current situation. So as I started to prepare for the High Holy Days, thinking we would be just about “back to normal,” I sought out a story about coming out of quarantine. I found a passage about two rabbis who lived in a cave for 12 years, and what happened when they tried, and failed, to reintegrate into society.
In order to avoid a death sentence for speaking out against the Roman government, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son, Rabbi Elazar, spend 12 years alone together in a cave. Aside from the isolation, these 12 years are idyllic. God provides a miraculous spring of water and a carob tree for sustenance. They spend their days immersed in study and prayer. Not wanting their clothes to wear out, they bury themselves up to their necks in sand, only putting on their real clothes when it is time to pray.
At last, the prophet Elijiah announces that the emperor has died, and the death sentence has been lifted. It is time to come out of the cave
But there are some issues with reentry, to say the least. After twelve years engaged only with spiritual matters, they are shocked to find people outside the cave doing mundane things like plowing and sowing their fields. Their anger at their fellow Israelites is so potent that everywhere they look burns immediately to ash.
Their laser focus on Torah has turned into literal laser vision. And God is not happy about it. “Did you emerge from the cave in order to destroy My world?” God asks. “Return to your cave!”
At this point, we can probably already identify with Rabbis Shimon and Elazar in a number of ways. Staying in one place for a long time, alone or with a small unchanging “pod.” Repeating the same activities over and over again. Eating sweets every day and only getting dressed when we have an important meeting.
But in these last few months, we might also have come to identify with the burning anger these men experience when they come out of hiding. We, too, have been waiting a long time to come out of the cave. We, too, might have found ourselves frustrated to see people on the outside going about their business, like nothing earth-shattering was happening. And we, too, might feel like we’ve been sent back into the cave, just when we thought it was time to come out.
And I’m certain that, especially during these last few months, there were times when we wished we could set things on fire with our eyes.
But for Shimon and Elazar, their anger, no matter how righteous, earns them another 12 months of exile. Basically, they are sent back into their cave until they can learn to play nice with the other Israelites. Which is probably also something we wish we could do with select groups of people
When they emerge one year later, Rabbi Elazar is still ablaze with anger. But his father has changed his tune. Wherever Rabbi Elazar strikes with his fiery gaze, Rabbi Shimon heals and repairs. He tells his son, “You and I study enough Torah for the entire world. Let them be.”
Rabbi Elazar is not convinced. So his father gives him an object lesson. It is twilight, close to Shabbat, when an elderly man runs past them carrying two myrtle branches. They ask him why he has two branches, when one would suffice to honor Shabbat. The man answers that he has two branches for the two different commandments to observe Shabbat that appear in the Torah. Rabbi Shimon says to his son, “See how beloved the mitzvot are to Israel?” The man’s extra act of devotion puts their minds at ease, and they begin to reintegrate into society in earnest.
How did that extra year in the cave change them? And what might that tell us about how our own time in lockdown might change us?
Back in March, as we marked one year since our world was turned upside-down by COVID-19, my teacher, Dr. Betsy Stone, gave a talk on “post-traumatic growth.” Thinking that the pandemic was nearly over, she explained how dealing with trauma might change us for the better. Though none of us would choose to undergo a crisis for the sake of growth, we might notice a few distinct ways this experience changed our ancient rabbis, and how it might be changing us.
For instance, we might come out of this time with a deeper awareness of our personal strengths. Rabbis Shimon and Elazar used their time in the cave to increase their Torah knowledge and sharpen their debate skills, something they later learn to use for the good of the community.
Many of us learned new skills, or honed existing ones, during this past year and a half. We baked bread and sewed masks, we tried out new instruments and languages. We might have also learned a lot about cults and big cat conservationists from our Netflix binges.
But more significantly, we were forced to figure out new ways of working, teaching, socializing, praying, learning, and parenting. As we were tested by a rapidly changing landscape, we discovered some strengths that might have been there all along.
This is true of us as individuals and families, but also as a community. We came together to create meaningful worship and learning experiences online, and worked with our family members and friends to make sure that everyone could access them. Nothing brought me more joy than seeing our oldest members log onto Zoom for the first time, or to watch family names pop up on the screen, letting us know that our youngest children were listening at bedtime. We felt the incredible amount of love, loyalty, and dedication that our community has for each other, and our ability to weather difficult times amidst a cascade of challenges and changes.
Rabbis Shimon and Elazar also experienced a reprioritization of values. During their 12 years of seclusion, this meant spending their entire day studying and praying, and looking down on anyone who didn’t. But when they emerge from the cave for the second time, they decide to judge their fellow Israelites l’chaf z’chut, on the side of merit, giving them the benefit of the doubt. Or, as Ted Lasso says, they were “curious, not judgmental,” about their neighbors’ spiritual practices.
The rabbis began to see the importance of their relationships with the community, to feel more compassion, and even appreciation, towards those who were not like them. In fact, when Rabbi Shimon leaves the cave for the second time, he declares his intention to do something that helps his community.
Our time in lockdown has also made it clear to us what is important. Our work schedules, educational models, and support systems were suddenly upended, and in many cases, we needed to rebuild them from scratch. As we reconfigured our lives, we had an opportunity to consider what was essential and what was not.
Many people left relationships, or committed to them more deeply. People changed jobs or even careers, giving employers and industries the chance to think about how they treat, and compensate, their workforce. We learned just how many things we can do online that we thought we could only do in person, and where we most missed that human connection. We learned which things we were most eager to resume, and what we’d be happy to never do agai
With so much of our lives stripped away, we learned to appreciate what we had.
Having been sustained for 13 years in a cave, Rabbi Shimon also has a deeper appreciation of life. His gratitude leads him to reach out to his community and see how he can be helpful. Though he had previously been a stickler on matters of law and ritual purity, after his seclusion, he comes up with a more lenient, and creative, solution to a community problem.
We, too, have had to be creative in how our community operates. We didn’t just turn on a camera and proceed as we always have (though that, in itself, took a great deal of skill and patience!). Pre-pandemic, we might have thought that, in order to master this technology and modify our practice, we might need a tremendous amount of resources. But since we didn’t have those, we learned to improvise and innovate!
My favorite example of this is how our cantorial soloist, Rebecca Schwartz, has continued to operate our Student choir during this time. Zoom doesn’t allow for multiple people to speak or sing simultaneously (my colleague, Rabbi Elisa Koppel, warns that attempting this might summon a demon). While our Adult Choir solved this problem by pre-recording some beautiful pieces, our children wanted to sing “live.” So they learned to mute and unmute themselves to sing solos, doing hand motions and dance moves while Rebecca sang the chorus.
When one of our teachers, Neal Beatus, put on a play during the 3rd and 4th grade Shabbat service online, he changed the classic story of “Teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot,” to “Teach me the entire Torah before my thumbs up emoji disappears!
We must acknowledge that, even if we had really wanted to learn creativity, gratitude, resilience, and compassion, this is not the curriculum we would have chosen. No matter how much we want to hold onto what we have gained, we must also acknowledge all that we have lost. We will never get back this time, the experiences we have missed, or the loved ones who were taken from us too soon.
But though we had no choice about how the past two years have unfolded, we can choose what we will do with all that we have learned.
How many of us have said, over the past two years, “I just want things to go back to normal”? But wouldn’t it be a shame to just go back to normal, without considering what we’ve learned during this time, without considering what we missed, and what we didn’t.
We are going through significant changes as a community, even aside from the pandemic. Wouldn’t it be a shame if we forgot how strong our community could be, no matter where we were located? How grateful we were to see each other’s faces on a screen, when we finally have the blessing of seeing each other in person? How might we use all the creativity and persistence we developed over the last two years to face the challenges that lay ahead of us?
When Rabbi Shimon comes out of the cave for the second time, he shares a tender moment with his son-in-law (not the son that was in the cave with him), who takes Rabbi Shimon to the bathhouse to tend to his cracked skin.
His son-in-law is so upset by the state of Rabbi Shimon’s body that he begins to weep, the salt from his tears stinging his father-in-law’s wounds. “Woe to me that I have seen you like this!” he cries. He bears witness to Rabbi Shimon’s pain, even as he helps him on his path to healing.
This, too, is something we have learned to do for one another during this time. I have never before seen so many people be so honest in admitting, “I am not okay. This is not okay.” And I have never seen so many people so quick to respond, “I see you. You’re not alone. This is hard. You are enough. What can I do to help?”
Rabbi Shimon accepts his son-in-law’s loving care. But he will not tolerate his pity. He replies: “Happy are you that you have seen me like this. For if you hadn’t seen me like this, I would never have learned as much as I did!”
I must say it again: None of us would have chosen the traumas of this past year and a half. We know that, when we do come out of this cave, we will carry with us the burdens of pain and loss. But this story, and our story, teaches us that it is possible, indeed likely, that we can and will emerge from this cave with newfound strength, wisdom, and compassion. It teaches us that we may already be in possession of these qualities, and that we might use them, even now, to enrich our lives and the lives of others.
Back in April 2020, when we were just sinking into the cave, youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman was finding light in it. I thought we might all find strength in a selection from her poem, “The Miracle of Morning.”
…While we might feel small, separate, and all alone,
Our people have never been more closely tethered.
The question isn’t if we can weather this unknown,
But how we will weather this unknown together.
So on this meaningful morn, we mourn and we mend.
Like light, we can’t be broken, even when we bend.…
We ignite not in the light, but in lack thereof,
For it is in loss that we truly learn to love.
In this chaos, we will discover clarity.
In suffering, we must find solidarity.
For it’s our grief that gives us our gratitude,
Shows us how to find hope, if we ever lose it.
So ensure that this ache wasn’t endured in vain:
Do not ignore the pain. Give it purpose. Use it….
Know that this distance will make our hearts grow fonder.
From these waves of woes our world will emerge stronger.
We’ll observe how the burdens braved by humankind
Are also the moments that make us humans kind;
Let each morning find us courageous, brought closer;
Heeding the light before the fight is over.
When this ends, we’ll smile sweetly, finally seeing
In testing times, we became the best of beings.
Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz
Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 33b
Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, Talmud of Relationships, Vol. 2, pp. 148-175