The Talmud tells a strange story about Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. After criticising the Roman government of Israel, Rabbi Shimon was threatened with persecution and death. In desperation, he and his son (Rabbi Elazar) ran away and hid in a cave for fourteen years. While in that cave, G-d sustained them with a miraculous carob tree, and they spent the time in the deepest of Torah study. When they could finally come out, they could not believe what they saw! People were working, farming, and making a living. The shame! They should be spending the time in Torah study instead. So everywhere that Rabbi Shimon and his son looked burst into flame. Immediately, a heavenly voice rang out and told them: "did you come out to destroy my world? Return to your cave." They returned for one year and then came out, realising that the world needed both the people who worked and the people who learned Torah.
The story is puzzling. What was Rabbi Shimon's objection to people working? What lesson did he learn by returning to the cave? What conclusion should we draw from all of this? Rabbi Shimon was a Torah study absolutist, much like many in our world today. He could not accept that other people would not spend their time as he did, immersed in the divine word at all times. "G-d ought to have made man with two mouths, one for Torah study and one for secular purposes," he once remarked. That way, you could spend all your time studying, even while pursuing other necessary activities. G-d sent him back because he missed something important. The Jewish people need specialists who can have genuine expertise in G-d's word, and we need people who will work hard to build the world. Rabbi Shimon was wrong not because he spent his time incorrectly but because of his intolerance. Returning to the cave gave him time to reflect on these facts. This week we celebrated Lag BaOmer, Rabbi Shimon's yahrtzeit. It is a day to celebrate his legacy and the power of his message. We will also read the Parsha of Behar, which concerns itself with the mundanities of agriculture and building the Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. The Parsha begins by telling us that G-d delivered these messages in the desert of Sinai. The commentaries immediately ask why we need to say this before discussing agricultural laws. The most straightforward answer is that the Torah is as concerned with our material prosperity, our supply of food, as it is with far loftier ideals, or perhaps even more.
This day and this Parsha should be paired. They match each other. The Parsha tells us that G-d cares profoundly about our physical circumstances. The day commemorates the man who rediscovered this fundamental truth. As we progress to Shavuot, let us all think about how we can integrate our spiritual and physical lives and make the transition between them seamless.