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.