This upcoming Tuesday we will celebrate a very famous and special sage from the Talmudic era, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Lag Ba'omer, the 33rd day of the Omer is the day of his passing, and he requested that it be a day of great celebration. Who was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and why is the day of his passing celebrated in Jewish communities all over the world until today?
Rabbi Shimon was a great sage in his time. He lived while the Romans occupied Israel after they had destroyed the Holy Temple and killed many Jews. he had spoken negatively of the Romans and someone informed on him. So there was a warrant out for his arrest and death, forcing Rabbi Shimon and his son Elazar to flee. They found safety in a dsolate cave. G-d miraculously gave them a carob tree and a spring of water for nourishment. They sat in the cave, day in and day out, studying Torah. They did this for a full 12 years, until Elijah, the prophet came to tell them that the emperor had died and they no longer needed to fear for their lives. After so many years of studying (not only Torah but the mystical dimension of the Torah, which later became the foundation for Rabbi Shimon's work the Zohar) they re-entered society.
It was ill fated however, because as they walked towards the nearest city they saw Jews out in the fields plowing, planting and reaping. Their minds could not comprehend, after having been so immersed in the study of Torah, how it was possible for someone to concern themselves with such mundane affairs such as planting. Their mere thoughts caused everything they looked at to immediately burn and turn to ashes. A heavenly voice called out "Have you come out to destroy my world? Go back to the cave." They returned to the cave for one more year, this time to prepare themselves for the mundanity of everyday life.
When they emerged the second time they passed a man hurrying to his home for Shabbat. He was carrying two myrtle branches in his hands. When they inquired what they were for, he said that they were to adorn his home in the honor of Shabbat. One branch for each verse that speaks of Shabbat. At hearing this Rabbi Shimon praised the Jewish people who beautify their homes to honor G-d and the Shabbat.
Although he had acquired tremendous wisdom, and had been occupied with only studying for 13 years, the first thing Rabbi Shimon did after emerging from the cave was to solve a problem for one Jewish community. This community's cemetery had a main road going through it. It had fallen into disrepair and it was no longer clear where people were buried and where they were not. For most people this was not a problem, but a Kohen-priest cannot be near or walk over a dead body. They could not use this road and was a great inconvenience having to take a much longer detour. Rabbi Shimon immediately set himself to the task of restoring the cemetery, identifying where the graves were, and creating a new path so that the priests would be able to use the road once again.
Rabbi Shimon had great love, love for the Torah, love for the Jewish people and love for the land of Israel. His legacy is one worth celebrating, which is exactly what we'll do on Tuesday afternoon.