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Struggle - Blessing or Curse

“They would shed their clothes and sit covered in sand up to their necks. All day long they would study [Torah] together, and when the times for prayer arrived, they would dress, cover themselves and pray….

….Eventually Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, the father-in-law of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, heard that Rabbi Shimon had emerged from hiding and he went out to greet him. He escorted him to the bathhouse and was massaging his flesh when he saw that there were cracks in [R’ Shimon’s] skin. Seeing these painful vestiges of years spent in the abrasive sand, [R’ Pinchas] began to cry; and as tears trickled from his eyes, they fell upon the cracks in R’ Shimon’s skin and caused him to cry out in pain. Thereupon, [R’ Pinchas] said to [R’ Shimon]: Woe unto me for having seen you like this! [R’ Shimon] replied to him: on the contrary! Fortunate are you for having seen me like this, for had you not seen me in such a state (i.e. bearing the marks of physical agony), you would not have found within me such (i.e. the great insight in Torah that I now possess).” (Shabbat 33B)

Lag B’Omer, literally the thirty third day of the Omer (18th of Iyar), is the anniversary of the passing of the legendary Tanna, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. While hundreds of thousands of people go to visit his tombstone in Meron, Israel, few have delved into the depth of his life’s story and his holy Torah writings. In order to get a glimpse of why he merited getting a holiday celebrating his life, and even more honor than any Sage in history (including his Rav, the holy Tanna Rabbi Akiva), we quoted a small part of his story that’s written in the Gemara, tractate Shabbat.

Hearing that Rabbi Shimon belittled the financial self-interest of the Roman Empire, the Roman Caesar put a bounty on his head to have him killed. After fleeing and hiding in a cave for 13 years, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son, Rabbi Elazar, emerged from the cave and came back home. Though enlightened with newfound holiness of the Torah they learned[1] day and night in the cave, their bodies bared the scars and wounds of mesirut nefesh (self-sacrifice). With the wounds still fresh, the encounter above gives us an incite as to how gruesome and painful it must have looked in order to make Rabbi Shimon’s father-in-law, Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, cry over it. Surely some of us can relate to the pain of seeing a loved one suffer in pain and agony. It can sometimes feel worse than having the pain yourself. I can only imagine the infinite gratitude I will always owe my dear Rabbanit, beloved parents and the rest of our family for suffering with me all these years.

What is the Gemara trying to teach us here by showing us the two distinct perspectives about the suffering? On one hand, Rabbi Pinchas was a sage himself, and by no means an Am HaAretz (ignoramus) that needed the basic teachings of motivation and optimism to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Rabbi Shimon, on the other hand, was not looking to become a martyr, yet celebrated the suffering as if it were a fortune. Even if taken at face value, whereby Rabbi Shimon now possessed much more priceless Torah, how does this make Rabbi Pinchas the fortunate one? Shouldn’t it say that Rabbi Shimon is one that’s fortunate?

“Rabbi Chanina said: a person does not stub his toe down below, on earth, unless they have first decreed this upon him from Above” (Chullin 7B)

One look at the Rambam’s 13 Principals of Faith shows the clear difference between our Divine Torah based Judaism versus the manmade religions (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism etc.). To qualify as righteous Jews, we must first believe these 13 ideological principals completely, which includes the principal of Reward and Punishment. As the Gemara Chullin quoted above teaches, the Divine precision of Reward and Punishment is the same regarding big and small events; needless to say on each party that’s affected. As Rav Efraim Kachlon once taught me, “before a person that was sewing was pricked by the small needle, there had to be a Beit Din in Heaven that sat, debated, and inevitably decreed to allow the needle to hurt the person. So if the small needle needed permission to stick a finger, it’s needless to say that the bigger pains or pleasures in a person’s life also went through the same precise judgment process.” Heaven decreed that he should injure himself in order to awaken him to do TeShuva for his misdeeds, and thereby receive atonement for them.[2]

“…Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair said: Woe unto me, for having seen you like this!”

With that in mind, we can now understand Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair’s sorrow much more. Though it is never pleasant to see a loved one in pain, Rabbi Pinchas became visibly upset at the sight of the wounds of Rabbi Shimon because he understood that Heaven did not deliver these wounds [on Rabbi Shimon] without a Beit Din judging him [Rabbi Pinchas], since he will be affected by the pain of his son-in-law too. Once the righteous Rabbi Pinchas could not think of the sin he committed to deserve this pain, he concluded that his situation is even worse than he thought—since he doesn’t know what he needs to do TeShuva for.

“…Rabbi Shimon replied to him: on the contrary, Fortunate are you for having seen me like this…”

The same deeper understanding of the Divine precision with some background details can now also clarify Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s unusual reply of praise. Since Rabbi Shimon was one of the five talmidim that Rabbi Akiva rebuilt the Torah world with (after the death of his 24,000 students), he obviously knew his Rebbe’s famous motto of “A person should always be accustomed to say: whatever the Merciful One does, He does for the best.[3]” This literally means that even what’s perceived as punishment is only decreed from Heaven after it’s concluded by HaShem Himself that it is the best possible option out of an infinite amount of possibilities. Although HaShem can use an infinite amount of routes to take a person from point A to point B, He only uses the best possible choice each and every time. No other choice that a human being can think of could possibly be better for the person in the end, when all things are considered. The only reason we complain to HaShem is because our limited human perspective only sees a one-dimensional present view of things, with a perceived possibility of the future outcome. The same 13 Principals of Faith also tell us that we are commanded to know and believe that HaShem sees the beginning, middle and end of everything simultaneously[4]. Although the mechanics of this are impossible for a human being to fully comprehend, our holy Torah teaches us different guidelines that HaShem uses in order to give us a perspective that we can understand.

…you would not have found within me such (i.e. the great insight in Torah that I now possess)

How could such the scars and deep flesh wounds be for the best? If they were for naught, then it would only be in the Hands of the Divine to explain. But Rabbi Shimon uncovered the last piece of the puzzle for us when he connected the wounds to his newfound Torah knowledge. Since his Rebbe, Rabbi Akiva, also taught [Rabbi Shimon] the words of the holy sage Reish Lakish regarding learning Torah, Rabbi Shimon knew that his injuries helped him and his son fulfill the teachings of the sages—“words of Torah are only retained by one who’s willing to kill himself over the Torah. [5] Fulfilling the words of the sages assures the fulfilment of the word of HaShem, and thereby making the talmidim praiseworthy, and the talmid of the talmidim praiseworthy. As it is said “praiseworthy is the generation in which the greater sages transfer their teachings to influence the next generation of lesser ones, and even more praiseworthy is the generation of lesser sages that accept and follow the teachings of the greater sages.[6] Therefore praiseworthy is Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son, Rabbi Elazar, for following the teachings of mesirut nefesh for Torah by the sages, and praiseworthy is Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair that witnessed it, and thereby can learn and teach it. Will you join the list by sharing dvar Torah?

________________ 1 According to tradition, it was during his time in this cave that Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai composed the Zohar 2 See Meiri on (Chullin 7B)

3 Berachot 60B

4 See Rambam Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah and Shemona Perakim (ending)

5 See (Berachot 63B)

6 See (Rosh HaShana 25B)

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