Good Shabbos! As the State and County begin to loosen up restrictions on gatherings, please remember to take care of yourself. It is important to enjoy the Shabbat and weekend, and the springtime weather should be exceptionally beautiful this weekend; but that does not mean that anyone should take unnecessary risks. While golf courses, parks, and more are opening up in both Ventura and Los Angeles county, please don’t get physically close with people you don’t know, remember to stay hydrated, and observe proper precautions.
We are in the middle of the Counting of the Omer, and approaching a very special holiday: Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer. This holiday, which is Monday night/Tuesday, is a deep and significant day in Jewish mysticism. This is the anniversary of the death and ascension of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the author of the Holy Zohar, a primary text of Jewish mysticism. The holiday is celebrated with haircuts (after not cutting our hair during the first 32 days of the Omer); and where safe, we light bonfires. This is because Rabbi Shimon brought so much spiritual light to the world through the Zohar; and due to the myth that when Rabbi Shimon revealed mystical secrets on the day of his death, daylight was extended until he finished his teachings: an example how all physical light is subservient to spiritual light. But there is a teaching about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai that is especially appropriate in these times as people begin to come out of their homes.
Rabbi Shimon, sometimes referred to as Rashbi, was a disciple of Rabbi Akiva, and had such love and respect for his teacher that even when Akiva was imprisoned and forbidden from teaching Judaism, Rabbi Shimon still insisted on studying with him. After Akiva’s death, Rabbi Shimon was vocal about his beliefs that the stringent Roman laws were for the benefit of Romans, but dangerous and detrimental to the spiritual wellbeing of Jews. The Roman governor (probably Varus in 161) sentenced Shimon to death. The Talmud relates how he sought refuge with his son Eliezar in a cavern to hide from the Romans for 13 years, living on a diet of carobs and water (there are stories of many mystics from various cultures living on carobs for an extended period of time). What is most applicable as a teaching for these times as we leave isolation is what happened to him when he first left the cave.
At the end of 12 years, the father and son heard Elijah tell them that the Roman emperor had died, and their death sentence was annulled. When he came forth from his 12 years of spiritual isolation, he found that when he looked at people who were immersed in commerce and unaware of spiritual truths…his gaze caused them to die. A heavenly voice told Shimon and his son to return to the cave for a year: that he needed to re-enter the physical world more gently from his intense spiritual isolation. At the end of the year they emerged from the cave (more gently this time) and he is credited with many miracles after he came back into society.
As we all leave our own forms of isolation (where we have hopefully been introspective and deepened our spirituality) we must remember the example of Rabbi Shimon. Having been surrounded for months with only our immediate family, we must remember to be gentle as we renew our physical relationships with others. We need take care of our bodies and keep our physical bodies healthy; and we must just as importantly be conscious and careful with our relationships. Having gotten used to only physically interacting with our families, we all must be especially careful about how we treat others as we re-enter the world…zoom meetings are not like actually be physically together, and we must be gentle, careful, and respectful with all others whom we start to interact with physically.
We have now entered week 5 of the counting of the Omer, a week devoted to the conscious awareness of the Sephirah (energy center) of Hod…eternal beauty. As we go through this week, we all need to be aware of the difference between prettiness and eternal beauty. Our words and actions this week should focus on truly beautiful actions: being kind, gentle, polite, and respectful. For over 2000 years this has been the intention (“kavannah”) of this 5th week of the Omer, and it is especially an important focus as we come out of quarantines and into the world.
May we all re-enter the world gently and with appreciation for the magnificence of God’s creation. And may we all walk through this week (and all times) with kindness, respect, and joy.
Shabbat Shalom; Gut Shabbos; and may we all be blessed with a Shabbat of good health, joy, and peace.
Rabbi Michael Barclay