Finally, someone had written the article I’d been waiting to read: “The Nervous Person’s Guide to Reentering Society.” I was thrilled when this NY Times article popped up in my newsfeed last week, I mean how do we do this? What are the new questions we need to start asking each other and the decisions and choices we need to start getting comfortably uncomfortable making as we navigate a partially vaccinated, sort of maybe coming to the end, but not quite, of a pandemic world?
While filled with thoughtful advice, it didn’t have all the answers, but then I remembered a story about Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, whose yahrzeit is celebrated on the holiday of Lag B’Omer – which happens to be this Friday and we will be celebrating at school with fun activities and a campfire!
Here is the story: Set in the days following the Roman siege of Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago, the Roman authorities have all but banned Jewish practice. When the emperor learns that Shimon bar Yochai has criticized Rome’s policies, they put a bounty on his head. He and his son escape to a cave, a miracle occurs and a carob tree shoots forth from the earth and a spring of water appears to sustain them while they hide in the cave. For 12 years the Talmud says they stayed in that cave, devoted to their Jewish life; praying, studying and eating from the carob tree.
Now, so far COVID has been just a bit over 12 months and not 12 years and instead of a carob tree and a spring of water we have Amazon and DoorDash, but you get the analogy. The story continues…
One day, after 12 years, Elijah the Prophet comes and stands at the entrance to the cave to tell Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai that the Emperor has died and it is safe from him to emerge from the cave. So Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son emerge from the cave and see people going about their life, plowing their fields and harvesting their crops. Outraged by seeing people seemingly going on with their everyday lives like nothing has happened, the Talmud tells us that everywhere Rabbi Shimon and his son directed their eyes immediately went up in flames and was burned and destroyed! The story then continues, a Bat Kol—A Divine Voice—calls out to them: “Did you emerge from the cave in order to destroy My world? Return to your cave.” They again went into the cave for twelve more months.
Our story, though, does not end here. The Talmud goes on to say that after 12 months they emerge again and this time, “Everywhere that Rabbi Elazar would strike, Rabbi Shimon would heal.” [Talmud Shabbat 33b]
This story is ripe for your own analysis and interpretation and I believe is the advice we need right now. Emerging back into this world is not linear and it is not easy. It will come in fits and starts. Sometimes we will be ready and sometimes we will need to return to our physical and metaphorical “caves.” Sometimes we will burn with indignation and frustration at what we see in the rest of the world and sometimes we will be able to contribute to the world’s healing. Sometimes we will know when we are ready to begin doing an activity again, or return to a place or an experience from before and sometimes we will need that coaxing and encouragement from the prophetic voices of our friends and families. Whomever you identify with in this story be it Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, his son, Elijah or maybe the cave or the carob tree, may you find peace of mind in your choices and know that we are all still in this together.