What Can We Learn from Hiding in a Cave?
By Rabbi Danny Burkeman
Over these last few months, the experience of self-quarantine, or some form of stay-at-home order, has been almost universal. Across the globe we have all experienced prolonged periods of time in our homes as a result of Covid-19. While the pandemic is far from over, in some places we have begun to emerge from our isolation and elsewhere people have emerged and then been forced to return to quarantine.
These experiences are new to us. We have no personal frame of reference for how to emerge from a period of isolation. And while the government and authorities will provide guidelines for this new phase, there is no playbook for how we do this personally. There are no accounts of the Rabbis of the Talmud dealing with a pandemic and the accompanying stay-at-home orders, but we do have the story of a Rabbi who lived with his son in a cave for 12 years (Talmud Shabbat 33b-34a), and it can prove instructive.
In a conversation between Rabbis about the Roman influence on life (imagine a serious version of the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian – “What have the Romans ever done for us?”), Shimon bar Yochai is less than complimentary about the rulers of the land of Israel. After being denounced, he is sentenced to death.
Initially, Rabbi Shimon and his son, Rabbi Elazar, hid in the study hall, with his wife bringing them bread and water. But as the decree intensified (think the move from an advisory to a mandatory stay-at-home order), they fled to a cave where they lived in isolation for 12 years.
How did they emerge from this period of isolation and quarantine? Unfortunately, it didn’t go well.
They went out and saw people plowing and sowing. Dismayed that these people weren’t studying Torah, Rabbi Shimon looked upon them and they were immediately burned up. A Divine Voice castigated Rabbi Shimon and his son, and sent them back into their cave for an additional year.
We have not emerged from our isolation to burn people up with a withering look. But how has this period of quarantine affected us? Like these Rabbis, I do think that we might have emerged from isolation a bit more judgmental than we were before. We do have the saying “if looks could kill,” and I am sure on more than one occasion I have given a look to people not wearing a mask or not following social distancing guidelines. Thankfully, I don’t have Rabbi Shimon’s powers to burn people up, but while he despaired about Torah study, I despair about people who are not taking this virus seriously enough or caring for their fellow person by taking precautions.
Before we went into isolation, the tone of political debate and discourse, especially here in America, was not good. Now, as we emerge in some places, that tone has only intensified as we’ve added our response to the pandemic as one of the things we can argue about and reject each other over.
But maybe there is hope. In the Talmud, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar were sent back into their cave for another year. We know that some states have already reintroduced stay-at-home orders and perhaps in those places, we are hearing a Divine Voice cautioning us that we have not emerged appropriately from our first period of isolation.
When they came out the second time, we read in the Talmud that everywhere that Rabbi Elazar would strike, Rabbi Shimon would heal. It might not be the results we were looking for; Elazar still appears stuck in his judgmental approach to the world; but it does show progress after a second period of isolation. Perhaps, in those twelve months, Rabbi Shimon realized the interconnectedness of everyone, and so rather than emerging with an eye to judgment he emerged with an eye to compassion, to care for his fellow person.
And then it gets better. On the eve of Shabbat they see an elderly man running, while holding two bundles of myrtle. They ask him what he is doing and query whether one bundle would be sufficient. His response is that the two bundles are to honor Shabbat and recognize the commandments to “remember” and “observe” the day. With that their minds were put at ease.
When they finally spoke to another person, rather than judging that person from a distance, they were able to gain an insight into his thinking and approach. And once they saw the world from another person’s perspective, they were finally comfortable again and could resume their lives as they had been before.
Like Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar, we may not emerge from isolation in the right way at the first time of asking. But hopefully we can learn the lessons from their example. If we are disdainful of each other, filled with judgment and contempt, we will find ourselves back in quarantine very quickly. When we recognize our interconnectedness, when we talk to each other, and when we care for one another, only then can we truly emerge back into life.
Rabbi Danny Burkeman is the Senior Rabbi at Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, MA. He is committed to making Judaism relevant in the modern world and always looking for new ways to engage people with Jewish community. He has a weekly podcast “Two Minutes of Torah” and was a member of the UJA Federation of New York’s inaugural Rabbinic Fellowship for Visionary Leaders.