Three years ago, I went to Eretz Yisrael in the summer along with my son. On our itinerary were visits to Meron and Tzfat so we could daven at the kivrei tzadikim. I was warned that Waze can direct you through Arab territories unless you adjust the settings to avoid those areas. I even asked someone to review the route Waze gave me to ensure we’d be fine. When we were up North, Waze told us to exit the highway. Suddenly, the signs switched from Hebrew to Arabic and the look of the people got me a little nervous. Yet, the road was narrow and mountainous, which made sense for Meron, so I figured we must be going in the right direction. The road soon opened up and once again, it looked like an Arab neighborhood. I was getting very nervous. Moments later, with Arab homes on both sides, Waze said, “You have reached your destination!” It had been many years since my last time in Meron, but I knew this most definitely was not the kever of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (the “Rashbi”).
My heart started palpitating and I was terrified. I pulled to the side of the road and davened a few chapters of Tehillim with an urgent plea to Hashem to please get us out of here quickly and safely. I called a friend of mine and asked him how to exit as quickly as possible. Thirty seconds later, a van pulled up and three people with white shirts and tzitis got out and walked toward our car. I asked them, “What are you doing here? Aren’t you guys scared to walk around an Arab neighborhood?” They said, “This is a Druze village. They are friendly to Jews; no need to worry.” Still, I was curious—why were they here also? The mystery unraveled. “This city is where you’ll find the actual cave where Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (known as the Rashbi) hid with his son to escape the Romans. Would you like to come join us while we daven by the cave?”
I thanked Hashem for answering my prayers by sending me Eliyahu Hanavi in the guise of these people and off we drove. On Lag B’Omer, thousands of Jews go to daven at the kever of the Rashbi, but not many go to the actual cave where he hid. I had the merit of saying Tehillim near that cave where his intensive study took place!
When the Rashbi hid from the Romans, who had sentenced him to death, Hashem miraculously made a carob tree grow and a stream of water flow at the entrance to the cave. That’s how he and his son survived for 13 years. His uninterrupted study and writing helped make the secrets of the Torah in the Zohar available to scholars, which eventually made it available to all who wished to study it. Rabbi Shimon endured tremendous physical suffering during that time. The Gemara records that Rabbi Shimon went to the springs of Tiveria to heal his cracked skin. Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, his son-in-law, accompanied him and when he saw the cracks and bleeding skin, exclaimed, “Woe is to me that I see you in such a bad condition.” Rabbi Shimon responded, “Fortunate are you to see me in this condition, for if it were not for this predicament in which Hashem has placed me, I would not have achieved and accomplished what I have done.” Rabbi Shimon taught us an important life lesson. Although difficult times happen and seem harsh, many are life-enhancing opportunities that Hashem has provided to us.
Last Lag B’Omer we were locked in our homes like the cave of Rabbi Shimon. Baruch Hashem, this year we are emerging from the cave! We need to recognize that our time in the “cave” was an incubation period that helped us achieve higher levels in our avodas Hashem. My morning learning chabura intensified their study during this period. Attendance and consistency, via Zoom and in person, increased, and we delved deeper into the Gemara than we have ever done before. The cave provided us with the opportunity for tremendous accomplishment in our Torah learning and development of character.
Rav Yaakov Emden says Lag B’Omer is a yom tov, which is why we do not recite tachanun in davening on that day. Even those who do not take haircuts or make weddings during Sefira, suspend their observance of Sefira on that day.
Although it might sound paradoxical to have a holiday on the day of the passing of the Rashbi, the Arizal tells us that it is a hillula, a yom tov. Why? Rebbe Shimon teaches that when people learn the words of a talmid chacham who passed away, his lips move in the grave, uttering the words that he once taught.
The talmid chacham lives on through his words of Torah. And Rabbi Shimon lives on through the incredible words of Torah that we learn from his writings.
Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim is the associate Rosh Yeshiva of Passaic Torah Institute (PTI)/Yeshiva Ner Boruch, where he leads a multi-level Gemara-learning program. PTI has attracted adult Jews of all ages from all over northern New Jersey for its learning programs. Fees are not charged but any contributions are always welcome. Beyond PTI, Rabbi Bodenheim conducts a weekly beis midrash program with chavrusa learning in Livingston plus a monthly group in West Caldwell. Rabbi Bodenheim can be reached at [email protected] For more info about PTI and its Torah classes, visit www.pti.shulcloud.com.