Rabbi Zvi Alon
Former Rosh Kollel in Montevideo
The Gemara (BT Shabbat 33b) cites the familiar story of Rashbi (R’ Shimon bar Yochai) and his son R’ Eliezer, who remained in a cave for twelve years. We are first told about the well-known debate between Rashbi, R’ Yehudah, and R’ Yosi. The three discuss the deeds of “this nation” (i.e. the Romans), and after Rashbi denigrates the Romans, he is sentenced to death. As a result, Rashbi and his son hide in the beit midrash, but when the decree becomes more severe, they escape to a cave, where the famous miracles occur. A large carob tree and a fresh water spring are created for them. Each day they learn Torah buried in the sand; when they emerge to daven, they get dressed, and thus their clothes do not wear out.
Before we continue with this Midrash, I would like to refer to another famous Gemara, which deals with a machloket (disagreement) between Rashbi and R’ Yishmael. The Gemara (BT Brachot 35b) states:
“‘And you shall gather in your grain.’ (Devarim 11:14) Why did the Torah have to say this? Because it is said, ‘This book of the Torah shall not depart from your mouth.’ (Yehoshua 1:8) One might think these words are meant literally.” The Torah [therefore] says, ‘and you shall gather in your grain,’ – act towards them in the manner of derech eretz (in the way of the world). [These are] the words of R’ Yishmael. R’ Shimon ben Yochai says, ‘Is it possible? [If] a person plows at the time of plowing and sows at the time of sowing and harvests at the time of harvesting… what will become of the [study of the] Torah? Rather, when Yisrael does the will of [the] Makom, their work is done by others… But when Yisrael does not do the will of [the] Makom, their work is done by their own selves. As it says, “And you shall gather in your grain…”’”
This machloket is an indication of the inherent difference between R’ Yishmael and Rashbi’s worldviews. The question on the p’sukim is a philosophical question: what is the relationship between Torah and work? On one hand, one must not abandon the Torah even for a second, but on the other hand, the grain must be gathered. How can these two things be reconciled? R’ Yishmael asserts that they can be integrated and combined. However, Rashbi insists that the two must remain separate. According to him, when the Torah says, “This book of the Torah shall not depart from your mouth,” we must take it “literally”. Livelihood? Food? Clothes? Others will take care of all these things for us.
Before we return to the Gemara in Shabbat, permit me to throw out a question: Do the conditions enjoyed by Rashbi and his son in the cave – namely, twelve continuous years of non-stop Torah learning – reflect Rashbi’s ideal? Note that “their work is done by others.” They have food, water, and clothing – everything they need. Thus, we have the exact situation which Rashbi hoped for in the Gemara in Brachot!
And now back to our original Midrash: Twelve years later, Eliyahu arrives and proclaims:
“Who will inform Bar Yochai that the Caesar has died and the decree has been annulled?” (BT Shabbat 33b)
So, Rashbi and his son leave the cave, and after twelve years of incessant Torah learning – we can only imagine what a high level they are on – they find themselves face-to-face with the real world:
“They saw some people who were plowing and sowing. [Rashbi] said, ‘They are forsaking the life of the World to Come and occupying themselves with the transient life?’ Everywhere [Rashbi and his son] would cast their eyes would immediately burn up. A bat kol emerged and said to them, ‘Have you come out to destroy My world? Return to your cave.”
This is astounding! In their holiness, the greatest of the Tannaim – the saintly Rashbi – and his son “disengage” from life and from HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s world! And then, they are ordered back into the cave!
A twenty-first century psychologist would have trouble understanding this story. Is the bat kol commanding them to undergo a recovery process? But, then, why should they return to the cave? Was that not the very cause of their problem? After all, when confronting a disorder such as “excessive Torah learning and detachment from reality”, a first-year psychology student would surely suggest the opposite approach: Send them to a kibbutz for a year. They will have to get up every morning to milk the cows, work the land, and clean the dining room. They will be forced to interact with other people, and slowly, they will recover from their “hyper-Torah” syndrome…
Before we address this issue, we should note Rashbi and his son’s attitude towards these events:
“They said [to themselves], ‘The sentence of the wicked in Gehinnom is twelve months!”
Unbelievable! The wicked in Gehinnom!
They remain in the cave for an additional twelve months, and when they finally emerge, something wonderful happens. Although R’ Eliezer’s eyes continue to incinerate everything in their path, Rashbi uses his eyes to heal all that his son has destroyed! Eventually, they observe an old man running with a pair of hadassim (myrtles) on Erev Shabbat. (I imagine that a year earlier, Rashbi would have likely shouted, “Now?! On Erev Shabbat?! Now is the time for the mikveh and for reciting Shir HaShirim and for completing shnayim mikra v’echad targum while draped in a talit. But you are running to bring flowers to your wife?!”) The old man explains that:
“‘One is for zachor, and one is for shamor.’ [Rashbi then] said to his son, ‘Look how Yisrael cherish the mitzvot.’”
Thus, one who feels that the Torah can be kept separate from life and that focusing on this transient world constitutes an abandonment of the World to Come is possibly – and, in fact, almost certainly – on such a high spiritual level that he resembles an angel. However, the truth must be stated, “Have you come out to destroy My world?” This approach leads to the destruction of HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s world.
Nevertheless, one must not – chas vishalom – think that Torah learning isolates and disconnects one from reality or that Torah learning causes one to “incinerate” anyone with a different opinion. Indeed, Rashbi himself teaches us otherwise.
As we noted above, an amateur psychologist would not be able to understand why Rashbi and his son are ordered to spend an additional year of unfathomably intense Torah learning. (Rashbi refers to this “cleansing process” as “the sentence of the wicked in Gehinnom.”) But we should have no problem comprehending this order. As Rashbi shows us, if we learn how to integrate the Torah with this world, we will not -chas vishalom – “incinerate” those who think differently than us. Rather, the Torah gives us the power to heal all that has been destroyed and those who have been burnt.
Moreover, if we recognize that we must “act towards them in the manner of derech eretz” – that we must, as R’ Yishmael maintains in Brachot, use our emunah shlaimah (deep and abiding faith) to show how the Torah is manifested in every millimeter of our transient world – we will realize that by amplifying the Torah’s presence in our lives, we can increase kedushah (holiness) and observe “how Yisrael cherish the mitzvot.”
In my humble opinion, Rashbi’s additional year in the cave led him – and leads us, as well – to this new understanding and attitude towards the world around us.