The Caves of Our Lives

May 12, 2012
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove

Parashat Emor/Lag BaOmer

This past Thursday, on Lag BaOmer, 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, tens of thousands of Jewish pilgrims gathered in the northern Israeli town of Meron for a memorial celebration , a Yom Hilula, at the grave of the mystic sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. A student of the great Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai emerged in the 2nd century, in the shadow of Roman persecution, as one of the great scholars of his generation. An original thinker and generator of Jewish law, Bar Yochai is perhaps best known for having the authorship of the foundational Kabbalistic text – the Zohar – attributed to him. Throughout Israel this week, and especially at his burial site, there are dancing, bonfires and festivities, all in his name.

In honor of the occasion, this morning I would like to share with you the most famous Bar Yochai story. Strange as the story is, you will come to see that is is not only about him and his mystical journey, but about each and every one of us, and our own aspirations in the religious journeys of our lives.

The Talmud (BT Shabbat 33b-34a) recounts that one day Bar Yochai and his colleagues were sitting in dialogue reflecting on the building projects of the Roman empire, the bathhouses, the bridges, the marketplaces – everything the Romans had built. While one rabbi complimented the Romans and another sat silent, Bar Yochai critiqued them, contending that the Roman projects provided no greater societal good, serving only the vanity of the Romans themselves. Unbenownst to the group, an informer sat in their midst who reported their conversation to the authorities. A decree of death was levied on our yet-to-be-mystic. Fearing for his life, Bar Yochai hid in a cave with his son Rabbi Elazar . Sustained only by a miraculous carob tree and spring of water, they lived in that cave for 12 years. Every day, they immersed themselves not just in the sand but in study, prayer and reflection, isolated from everyone and everything. Twelve years passed, Caesar died, and the decree against Bar Yochai was annuled. Elijah the Prophet appeared and informed Bar Yochai and his son that that it was now safe for them to emerge from the cave. And here is where, if it isn’t already, the story gets a little weird. Brimming with piety from his monastic cave existence, Bar Yochai is shocked to discover life on the outside going on – business as usual. Bar Yochai simply can not understand that people could plow fields, harvest crops, tend to their daily affairs – activities that in his mind were altogether earthly and transitory concerns. Filled with zeal, Bar Yochai gazes with such disgust at the world at large, that everything upon which he casts his eyes is incinerated by his glance. At this point – and hold on to this point – a heavenly voice reprimands him for the destruction that he is wreaking and commands him to go back into the cave to cool off. Twelve months later, a voice calls him back into the world once again. To make a long story a little shorter, with his fiery gaze simmered down, Bar Yochai goes on to be one of the great teachers of Torah of our people. He builds public works projects, he serves the Jewish community, he becomes a great mystical teacher and in case you are wondering, he even has his revenge on the one who informed on him in the first place.

Sometimes, a story is just a story and a cave is just a cave. But as I was telling Bar Yochai’s story to the kids this year, I started to ask myself for the first time whether this cave represented more than just a cave, and if Bar Yochai shuttling in and out of the cave is about more than a rabbi hiding from oppressive authorities. After all, be it rabbinic literature, Alice in Wonderland, the Chronicles of Narnia, Gulliver’s Travels or the Indian in the Cupboard – nine times out of ten, the trip down the rabbit hole, from one reality to another, is a journey about more than physical geography but of spiritual and metaphysical consequence. These transformations are not just for children, but for all of us, commentaries on the world as it is and as it should be, what we want most, sometimes what we fear most, and in a good author’s hands all these elements can deftly be put into conversation in what may at first glance seem like a casual fairy tale.

And then it struck me. Long before all of these stories is the probably most famous cave story of all – the allegory of the cave bequeathed to us by Plato. You may remember it from an undergraduate philosophy class. It’s a story which, if we revisit it briefly, makes the Bar Yochai story all the more interesting.

Imagine if you will, writes Plato in the voice of Socrates, a group of people who have spent their whole lives chained up in a cave unable to move. Behind them is a fire, but staring at the wall, all they can see are shadows. Having never seen or experienced anything else, they naturally mistake their existence for reality. Now what would happen, asks Socrates, if one of the cave dwellers were to be liberated. He would, says the author, go with great difficulty to the outside world and at first be overwhelmed and disoriented by the light outside the cave. After some time, the liberated prisoner would come to realize that the world that he had believed to be reality was a world of mere shadows. Ever so slowly, he would grow accustomed to the world outside the cave. Upon returning to the cave, however, this now enlightened individual would be thoroughly misunderstood, ridiculed and even persecuted by his chained fellows; all his new knowledge would be dismissed outright. After all, these cave dwellers never experienced what he came to experience, why should they believe his fantastical stories?

This allegory, explains Plato, is the journey of the philosopher from the darkness of this world, towards the Platonic ideal and then back into the real world. Plato knew that his philosopher mentor, Socrates, the gadfly of the state, was – like the liberated prisoner who returned to the cave – never accepted by the world that rejected him. Of course the allegory is a commentary not just on Socrates, but on the nature of knowledge, on reality and the degree to which any enlightened individual can return and influence those who remain dwelling in the everyday world.

All this is a very circuitous path to bring us back to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. A former teacher of mine, Lee Levine, suggested that the Bar Yochai story of the Talmud was well aware of, if not inspired by, Greek philosophical myth. More recently, my colleague Charlotte Fonrobert of Stanford has also written that given the striking parallels between Plato’s cave and that of Bar Yochai, it is altogether reasonable to think that the story in the Talmud is a revision, commentary and perhaps even criticism of Plato’s allegory.

For the moment, let’s set aside the questions of literary influence and take these texts as allegories for something much bigger, and consider what they say about human nature, knowledge and the spiritual quests of our lives.

For starters, both stories seem to indicate that there are two worlds, in the cave and outside of the cave. In the Plato story, humanity exists shackled and unenlightened in the cave. In the Bar Yochai story, humanity goes about its day-to-day work on the outside of the cave. In both stories, an individual makes the journey from the everyday world into a world containing a higher truth – for Plato, the realm of forms and ideas; for Bar Yochai, the estoteric world of pious mysticism. In both stories, the individual who has come to possess this rarified knowledge reenters the everyday world and in both cases, that process of re-acclimating and acceptance is unsuccessful. For Plato, the philosopher is rejected; for Bar Yochai, everything he sees is incinerated. The stories are not identical, but they do run parallel. They are stories about the acquisition of mystical or metaphysical truth, and the inability of an individual in possession of that truth to function in the world of the unenlightened.

But there is a difference – a difference that makes all the difference in the world. It is the scene at the very end. Plato’s allegory concludes with the philosopher sitting uncomfortably in what is understood as an altogether inferior world of the everyday. In the talmudic story, Bar Yochai, initially unable to return to the everyday world, is told to go back in the cave and then emerges 12 months later to begin his ministry to the community at large. To be sure, he remains a mystic. But he is also a man who learns to contribute to his people. Remember, our first contact with him was his being critical of the Roman public works. Our next snapshot was his difficulty in accommodating his piety to the everyday world. The resolution of our story is when he comes to realize that his otherworldly zeal must find application in the world. Teaching, building, family – all the things that make life – life.

Any student of religion knows that within rabbinic culture, and for that matter, any religious culture, there exists a tension as to whether the claims of one’s faith should or shouldn’t inform other aspects of life. If, after all, the point of religion is to transcend our worldly selves and connect to a higher truth, then there arguably exists a fundamental incompatibility between our domestic and communal existence and the claims of our religion, an incompatibilty rendered evident in Plato’s allegory. For Bar Yochai the take-home message is very different. The talmudic story makes it very clear that the purpose of our faith is to impact the world around us. There may be two worlds, but the Jewish spiritual ideal is an integrated existence, where the tension between those worlds is a productive one, each world informing and influencing the other. In a sentence, it is the moment that Bar Yochai is sent back into the cave that is a critique not just of Plato’s cave, but of the entire idea that one’s spiritual life and one’s everyday life are two separate lives.

Jewish spirituality, though not oblivious to the allure of otherworldly pursuits, is better described as the ongoing effort to bring the mystical into the everyday. As our own Milton Steinberg explained, it is our ability to function as kinsman, congregant, citizen and human being which serves to advance God’s design. Bar Yochai, our greatest Jewish mystic, did not remain in the cave. Not even Moses himself stayed on top of the mountain too long; even he was ordered to return to his people to live in the company of the everyday world. Our spiritual heroes always bring the extraordinary back into the ordinary, the sacred to the mundane, or as the prayer book says over and over, carry the hope that the peace of the heavens is brought upon us, Israel and humanity.

From Elijah in the cave, to Jesus in the desert, to Mohammad’s night journey, this is the oldest story of all – the call to enter another world in order to aquire wisdom and experience not available in the here and now. Each one of us, I suppose, if we chose to do so, could linger in the wild rumpus of those alternative realities, and perhaps someone would even suggest that we be made king of Where the Wild Things Are. But as Jews, more appealing than being crowned the philsopher king of the wild things, is our hope to return to the place where we are loved – to bring that other world back into this one, always returning home, hopefully in time to find our supper still hot. It is the oldest story of all, but the Jewish version always ends here – in this world, with our family, our fellow citizens and our obligations – each and every day, tending and tilling the very fields of this earth that God has given us all.

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