FRIDAY, May 4th
Today we celebrate Lag B’Omer, a holiday which among other things, commemorates the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, one of the great sages of the Mishnaic period. He and his son, Rabbi Elazar, hid in a cave where for 12 years they did nothing but learn and pray. When the prophet Eliyahu came to tell them that the decree against Rabbi Shimon had been annulled and it was safe to leave the cave, they emerged, and encountered people planting and sowing fields. After 12 years in a cave, focused entirely on Torah and spiritual matters, the sight of ordinary people engaged in worldly business enraged them. “They abandon eternal life and occupy themselves with temporary life!” they exclaimed.
Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar had achieved such lofty spiritual powers that their scorn became physically manifest by causing each thing they looked upon to burst into flame. At this, a heavenly voice ordered them to return to the cave, where they remained for another year. This time, when they emerged, Rabbi Shimon’s gaze healed where Rabbi Elazar’s destroyed. Only when they saw an old man carrying two bundles of myrtle (hadasim) and were told that these bundles were in honor of Shabbat, were their minds put at ease.
As distant as we might be from the experience of living in a cave for 12 years, or from the spiritual power that Rabbi Shimon possessed, there is something of Rabbi Shimon that we can each connect to. Each of us, I hope has had an experience, which opened us up to a new way of seeing the world, to gaining insights that made our old ways of thinking and behaving seem to be of little worth. Maybe this experience came from reading a book or taking a class. Maybe it was insight we gained during prayer or meditation, from visiting a new place or from a new friendship or a new job.
Any time we have an intense experience, positive or negative, that changes us spiritually, intellectually or emotionally, it can cause us to devalue those who do not share our experience or insight. It is all too easy to look down on those who do not see the world as we do, who disdain what seems precious to us, and who value what seems to us of little worth. As natural as this tendency might be, it is very dangerous. While our gaze might not literally light things on fire, as Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar’s did, there is no doubt that regarding people and things with disdain can be very destructive.
When we are blessed with new insight or perspective, it’s important that we go the extra mile to make sure our newfound knowledge not become an excuse to disparage others. Instead, our task is to cultivate an appreciation and respect for those whose perspectives, values and spiritual life may look very different from our own, and might even seem to us, at first glance, to be inferior.
May we have the courage and patience to look for the good in people and things which seem worthless, and to recognize the preciousness of each person and each idea we encounter.