Lessons Learned Inside, and Outside, a Cave

Today is Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer. It is a minor holiday that falls during the Omer, the seven-week period that connects Passover and Shavuot. The name literally means “The 33rd of the Omer.”

There are several meanings that are associated with this day. One is that it marks the yartzeit (anniversary of death) of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, one of the Talmud’s leading mystics. The Talmud, in Shabbat 33b, recalls this famous story of Rabbi Shimon:

Rabbi Shimon spoke out against the Roman government, so a decree was issued that he was to be killed. He and his son fled to a cave. A carob tree miraculously grew to provide them sustenance, and they spent the next 12 years only studying Torah. After 12 years the prophet Elijah came and announced that the Emperor had died and therefore the decree was voided.

Rabbi Shimon and his son emerged from the cave and the first thing they saw were people plowing and sowing their fields. He became enraged, saying, “These people abandon Torah for their worldly pursuits?!” and, in a powerful display of spiritual might, wherever he looked was set aflame.

God then called out to Rabbi Shimon and said, “Did you come out of the cave only to destroy My world?! Get back in the cave!” So Shimon and his son returned. A year later they emerged again. It was Friday evening and this time they looked and saw an old man running and carrying myrtle branches. They asked what they were for, and the man said, it was in honor of Shabbat.

The text reads, “Their minds were put at ease,” for they realized that people who labored in the fields were still making space for sacred time and observance.

This is a beautiful story to be mindful of, especially during this period of the Omer. As we learn from Rabbi Shimon’s actions, and God’s response, when he first emerges from the cave: we are not to lead solitary lives, focused on our own piety, isolated from other people and worldly pursuits. Such an approach only leads to destruction. Rather we are to see how to incorporate the holy into our daily working lives.

The Omer period links Passover and Shavuot, the festival of freedom with the festival of revelation. The first celebrates our liberation from Egyptian bondage, the second celebrates the guarantee of that liberation by the establishment of a new community and a new set of norms by which we are to live. Indeed, freedom isn’t just the absence of oppression, it is living under a system that guarantees our freedoms.

The holy, therefore, is something that is found not alone in a cave, and not just when we incorporate spirituality into our worldly pursuits. It is found when we engage in the world to improve it, when we build the society that uplifts others, as well as ourselves.

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