I am getting ready to go to Meiron! If you want me to daven for someone specific, please send me the name(s) by email today. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. It is the anniversary of the day Rabi Shimon bar Yochai left this world, leaving behind him the mystic tradition that gives you the ability to see beyond the surface. When you study mussar, hashkafah, chassidus, whether or not you know it, much of what you learn flows from what he taught. Much of what he learned took place during the years he spent hiding from the Romans in a cave in Pekiin, not far from Meiron. He subsisted on carobs, spring water, and managed to survive without even having adequate clothing. His body was covered with sores from the sand that “furnished” the cave and was his bed, chair and rug. His soul was full of the kind of light that people like you and me can’t even imagine. Before his death, he dictated what later became the Zohar to his student Rabi Abba. When he was finished, the room was filled with overwhelming brightness. His last words were, “I will exalt you Hashem because You drew me forth, and never let my enemy rejoice”. The enemy he was referring to is the yetzer hara, the inner force that drives you do destruction. He told his students that the day of his death is the day of his celebration, and that those who come to celebrate with him, as so to speak his guests, will have him as defender as they pray. Meiron is full on Lag B’Omer. Some of the people know why they are there; others just know that it is the place to be. What joins them together is the knowledge that holy man who rests here invited them.
One of the deeper questions that someone asked me about Rabi Shimon bar Yochai’s life can be heard as a challenge.
“I understand that when Rabi Shimon had to escape from the Romans, he ended up hiding in a cave for 12 years, it was because he was principled enough to tell the truth about who they were. I also understand something of the the greatness of the spirit of a man who in absolute privation and isolation reached higher and higher levels of spiritual perfection instead of succumbing to the empty days and emerging barely human. My question is not about him; it’s about Hashem! Why would He put someone like Rabi Shimon through such suffering?”
This kind of question is like a can of worms. Once the can of worms is opened, the worms crawl out. This led to questions not only about Rabi Shimon, but about the good people who perished in the holocaust, about your cousin Barbara who was just diagnosed with cancer, and finally about the unspeakable loneliness in a world in which being single seems to leave you in the awful place called Out. What is suffering meant to say? What’s its voice?
I was tempted to answer her by telling her the truth; neither I nor anyone else can give an answer that will satisfy her. The heart speaks louder than the mind ever will, and the nature of reality is that we humans aren’t wired to see the whole picture.
The reason that I didn’t let it go with this answer, is that neither the sages nor the Torah are mute when the subject of suffering comes up. One look at this week’s Parshah, Bechukotai, tells you that Hashem’s’ map of reality includes some awesomely terrifying places. When we sin, we are forced to the wall. There’s no escape until we return to Hashem.
Ironically suffering is usually the result of being showered with so much good that we no longer see beyond our ambitions and our desires. The Torah tells you that often times prosperity leads to amnesia. When you are suffering you may find yourself turning towards G-d (even being angry at Him puts you in dialogue). You have no control. You turn to Him because there is no one else to turn to, certainly not to yourself. When things go well it’s an entirely different story.
Imagine getting the perfect job: interesting, well paying, great hours, nice people, paid travel to fascinating places. Wouldn’t it be easy to attribute it to either your own intelligence, education, connections (at worst) or “luck” (whatever that means to you) at best? Once Hashem is no longer in your day to day life, seeking Him and doing His will no longer occupies center field. Once this happens things can easily spiral out of control. Your desires and ambitions can take you over. You can end up living in a dog eat dog reality where no one is really safe materially or emotionally, and false gods replace Hashem.
The Torah then tells that Hashem will not let you spiral down to the point of no return. He will put you in situations that are tragic, painful, and impossible to ignore. That re-opens the door that you closed; you permit yourself to acknowledge your utter lack of control, and return to Hashem by obeying the laws that resonate to your soul.
Pay attention to two things
1-One reason for suffering is Hashem’s commitment is to keep things from spiraling out of control,
2-The curses in the Torah are addressed to us as a people. When you study Jewish history, you find the pattern described in the Parshah recurring again and again. What still remains a mystery is why one individual’s fate may be so different than another’s.
Does that mean that if you are suffering, you must be in the midst of heading towards the abyss? That you brought your suffering on yourself because you are too complacent? The answer takes you back to the question from the beginning of the letter. Why would someone like Shimon bar Yochai suffer?
Now you may be ready to hear another angle:
Would Shimon bar Yochai be what Shimon bar Yochai emerged as if his life was an easy one? Of course not. Now you are ready to (at least for the moment) let go of your defenses and ask, “Would I be the person I am if I never had to make hard choices and at times suffer the consequences?
You know the answer. The person you can be, and were created to be, sometimes needs to be pushed to the edge before the beautiful spiritual hero that is in you becomes visible. No one knew this better than Rabi Shimon. He understood that there are defeats as well as victories, and promised to be there for us when we come to daven at his tomb. He had one pre-condition.
If you are going to go, he said, go with simchah. Trust Hashem that you are the best of the best and that you have the best of the best.
First of all, the good stuff-Mazal Tov to Friedman, Haddas Ziddle and Sara Weinberger all of Bnos Avigail on their engagements.
You may wonder why I include news that is not news of interest for most of you. Some of you went to Neve 40 years ago! Some of you never went to Neve or any of its institutions. One of you is a very eminent rebbitzen who is in her ninth decade. The reason is that on the deepest level we are all like one body with infinite numbers of limbs and organs. The trouble is that while this may resonate intellectually, it has very little to do with how most of us feel.
There is an Arabic saying that goes, “It’s us against and Them. My tribe against yours. My clan against yours. Me against my brother”. Do you live in a constant state of defense against Them? It’s easy. Even when Them is Us. If you spill soup on my shirt, your shirt isn’t wet. How can you feel as though you and I are one person when your experience in life tells you that we are not? There is a very unappealing axiom that explains the entire matter.
The more you define yourself, others and the world materially, the more isolation you will feel.
The more you see yourself, others and the world as an extension of Hashem’s unknowable Unity, the more connected you will feel
The more honest you are about the above, the more aware you will be. The less honest you are willing to be, the less likely you are to ever feel real connection or love.
UGH! How annoying when you realize that so much of your life takes place in the world of Things, and how much pleasure the physical side of life has when you reach out and grab some. This of course doesn’t change the truth of the axiom. The Jewish people were able to reverse the Arabic saying when they received the Torah. If you were not the “eye”, one of the people capable of profound insight and integration, that was okay. It was okay not to be the heart one of those whose ability to bring lifeforce to the entire people was tangible. It was okay if you were one of the masses who may have all said silently,” I am a finger”, you could make the fine motor action involved in living real life happen in a way that works. There was no envy or fear because of the depth of their grasp of what living purposefully is all about. When you are focused on a goal, ego can melt away (OR NOT! It depends on whether the goal is primarily about self-gratification, or whether that was never a factor).
I was once at the Kotel when there was a bomb scare. In fact, I caused it. I took one of my small kids with me that day. She was about two and a half, which is the age where many children are toilet trained, but not completely reliable. Like a good mommy, I didn’t plan an unrealistic visit to the holiest place on earth, just a sort of “hello” and home. I took her to the bathroom, settled her in with her bag of Bamba and began to say Tehillim. She immediately looked up with her innocent eyes, and said exactly what I didn’t want to hear. She has to go…. I knew that she didn’t generally give me much time between the Warning and the Event. I picked her up, hurriedly asked the woman next to me to keep an eye on my stuff and ran. When I returned in just a few minutes, the entire plaza had been cleared (kol hakavod to tzahal….), and a robot was in the process of blowing up my bag. The explosion was relatively controlled, and soon the crowd flowed back to the deserted plaza. Except for my bag’s guardian (who, in fact, had never actually agreed to the role that I had foisted upon her), who apparently had fled the scene earlier. I told the officer in the police station across from the Kotel that I was the owner of the bag-I didn’t want them to go on a wild goose chase looking for a non-existent perpetrator. I expected to be spoken to in the unique blend of restrained hostility with a heavily patronizing patina of civility that is the core patois of the Israeli policeman. Instead, he offered to pay for the bag (which he told me is the policy in similar situations) and let me go.
The plaza was slowly filling up. The usual divisions were visible; the Yerushalmis, the tourists, and the regular mix to students, women with much to pray for, and anonymous others. When they were fleeing the Kotel just moments earlier there were no divisions. Love of life and fear of death united them.
Ramban wrote about the instinctive separateness that G-d wants you to deal with. If you and a friend were in a desert and all you had left of your water supply was a small vial that couldn’t save both of you u, you are supposed to drink it yourself according to Jewish law. Nonetheless you can teach yourself to want for others what you want for yourself. You want success, acceptance, validation, beliefs’ basic necessities and more. The more you commit yourself to doing what you can to see that your friend has what he too wants, the more the walls that separate you fall. When that happens, you can still
Alone, unique and painfully mortal
But somehow never alone, or mortal while you are bonded with the rest of the those
Who stood at Mount Sinai.
During these weeks of sfirah, its time to get to work, to give genuine respect to each other, and to the rest of the time to find what you have to share and to receive.
When I was a child my family lived in East Flatbush. Flatbush Avenue was shopper’s paradise in those years. My mother and her sisters would get together every week or so to march down the Avenue in unison, window shopping (and sometimes actually making a purchase, but that was by no means necessarily more than a minor part of the fun). They would finish up at Garfield’s restaurant where they would sit down (sometimes all 7) for little cartons of chocolate milk. I usually tagged along, because as an only child the alternative (being alone in the apartment) wasn’t that attractive, and the chocolate milk was. I would however sometimes make a little detour. There is a non-Jewish cemetery that we passed on the way. I loved going in and looking at the gravestones. Some were very ornate, others very plain. Some had rather moving epithets, others names and dates. This is a habit that I never quite abandoned. I go for the obituary articles in the frum papers, and find them to be full of marvelous insights into what is really important at the end of the road. I also would contrast them (sometimes) with the kind of obituaries that appear in the New York Times, where achievements that are totally irrelevant in death are often highlighted.
Yesterday I went to a really great memorial service. I know how bizarre that sounds, but bear with me. A private car met near the Kotel to take a minyan of men (most of whom never met the woman whose grave we visited), and about 15 of her friends to the cemetery on the slopes of Mount Olives. On the way up we passed the tomb of prophets, tzadikim, and in my case, people who are the closest to me. We finally arrived at the sunny expanse of flattened earth where Marcie Alter is buried. We read psalms, her son Ben said Kaddish, and then we returned to central Yerushalim. What brought us there?
Other than Ben, only one of us knew Marcie before her body was devastated and became something of a prison to her free and determined spirit. She had suffered an aneurism and undergone several surgeries that left her almost completely paralyzed. She could move one hand with great effort, but it made it possible to communicate using a word board. She shared her love of learning with me, her love of shopping and adventuring with others. None of us saw a trace of embitterment, or submission. She had her own mini-world in the small room in the Hospice of St. Louis in Jerusalem (where she spent the last years of her life); her siddur, the books the “girls” (most of us are 50 plus) would read to her, the pictures her grandchildren drew and the chart of the 7 Noachide commandments that were there for the non-Jews who work in the hospice to see.
After the service at the cemetery (arranged by Rebbitzen Tehilla Abramov, one of Marcie’s most devoted fans), some of the girls gathered in my house. We ate (of course! We’re all Jewish!), said brachos in her memory, and reminisced. My son in law Shmuel (who never met Marcie, but knew her well via his wife, Guli) spoke about how the way she lived can remind you of the way the Kohein Gadol served in the Bais HaMikdash. The most sanctified service of the entire year was the Yom Kippur service. After a weeklong preparatory period, and five immersions in the mikveh, the kohein gadol (highest kohein) entered the holy of holies. Alone. Briefly. No one saw him, and no one could enter his mind or heart. This is how Marcie served….
Today is Israel’s Memorial Day. Over 3,500 people, civilians and more or less the same number of soldiers were killed over the last 70 years because they are Jews. And live in Israel. The civilians (like the people killed or wounded in the Har Nof massacre) didn’t choose their role. On the way up from Marcie’s grave, I passed my grandson’s friend, Benyosef Livni who was killed while praying at Yosef’s tomb. He was a gentle soul, a Breslov Chassid, the father of tiny children. He would have chosen life, but the Arab who killed him didn’t ask him what his preference was.
The soldiers who were killed also would have chosen life, but they knew that they also were choosing to face possible death. Rav Chaim Shmuelvitz zatzal, the famed Rosh Yeshiva of Mir would compare them to the two brothers whose story is narrated in the Talmud. During the Roman oppression a Roman soldier was killed in Lud. The commander said that if the perpetrators didn’t turn themselves in, that the entire city would be killed. This threat was completely credible. Two brothers, who had nothing to do with the death of the centurion, turned themselves in and took responsibility for a deed that they had not done, dooming themselves to death. The Talmud goes on, and tells us that they were killed, but that this is not the end of their story. They reached a place in Gan Eden where only the patriarchs can reach. “Every soldier knowingly puts himself in the position of being like those brothers, facing the possibility of death to save the rest of us” the Rosh Yeshiva said.
I am going to end the letter now, because the siren that is sounded to make us recall their memory will be heard momentarily. I will say Tehillim and reflect on the wonder of being part of a people who are so inspiring even in death.
Rebbitzen Tziporah Heller