BY Rabbi Zell
While the Jewish world is still numb in the face of the tragedy that occurred in northern Israel last week, with the unimaginable death of 45 innocents from the (ultra-Orthodox) or Haredi community, I find myself in a distinct minority. Even if the most recent tragedy had not occurred, there would have been something gnawing at me for a number of years. It is simply beyond me, why well over a hundred thousand of our people take it upon themselves to make the trip to Meron in northern Israel to mark the yahrzeit of a great sage.
To be sure, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai deserves all the reverence and esteem in the world. In fact, several decades ago, when I devised a course on sages in the Talmud, I devoted an entire section to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Yet, one would be led to believe that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is the sole sage interred in Israel. Nothing could be further from the truth! The soil of ancient Israel is home to the earthly remains of numerous biblical personages and dozens of sages. Why isn’t there a similar-sized crowd at the tomb of Rabbi Akiva in Tiberias, immediately prior to Yom Kippur each year (it is believed that Rabbi Akiva was one of 10 sages who were executed on Yom Kippur by the Romans)? Why don’t Haredi Jews travel to Beit Shearim en masse each year on the 15th of Kislev to commemorate the yahrzeit of Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi? Don’t Haredi Jews realize, that by according such honor and respect to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, it is at the risk of not showing similar honor and respect to other Talmudic sages, who are no less deserving of esteem and praise?
Many of the Haredi community are in awe because of the belief that like the prophet Elijah, the soul of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot. I am in awe because Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, in defiance of the Romans remained a fugitive from so-called Roman justice. For twelve plus years, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son Eliezer, holed up in a cave, subsisting on a daily diet of carob and water. It was in that cave, that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai disseminated Torah to devoted students who risked being followed by the Roman authorities. However commendable, it is to visit a grave on a yahrzeit, there is a tradition to dedicate a rabbinic text on a yahrzeit so that the soul receives an “Aliyah” viz. ascends even higher in heaven. It would seem to me, that those so intent on marking a yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai would be well advised to consider joining ten others – thereby assembling a minyan – and heading off to the woods, where they would proceed to study various selections of the Talmud where Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is mentioned, reciting Kaddish D’Rabbanan and then munch on carob, ideally washed down by water or another beverage (despite my misgivings, I would probably cave into liquor, so that a L’Chaim could be made for the soul). As meritorious as a visit to the grave is, I cannot help but feel that my suggestion is far superior. A visit to the grave, recalls that Rabbi Shimon Bar died; a visit to a cave, recalls that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai lived.
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai raised civil disobedience to a most high and commendable level. He did not hesitate to speak out against the government. His sole objective in doing so was neither to entice others into rioting nor to stage demonstrations and confrontations. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai merely desired to expose the truth. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was a pragmatist. For Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, it was a matter of Torah over politics. As far as Rabbi Shimon was concerned, Torah trumped politics. His attitude toward the Romans was one of acquiescence, where he had no intention of causing the government any trouble. In return, he did not want the government to cause him any trouble. This was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s notion of “Social Distancing”. It would seem to me that if one’s love and respect for Torah is so great that Torah must be kept pure at all costs, then why sully the Torah by exposing it to politics? Shouldn’t the clean hands and pure heart mentioned in Psalm 24, also apply to those visiting a grave of a revered rabbi on Lag B’Omer?
May the day come when those who observe the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai consider the following: Are my hands clean enough and is my heart pure enough? Should I not perhaps observe the yahrzeit by focusing on Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s life rather than his death? Shouldn’t I accord other rabbinic greats the same honor and respect I accord Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai? Observing a yahrzeit in such a fashion would produce a far brighter image for mankind than the flames emitting from Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s chariot when he departed this world.