Rashbi and the Rainbow
After the deluge Noah emerges from his craft. The world had been punished by the wrath of God. And now God speaks:
And God spoke to Noah, and to his sons with him, saying, "And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you. And with every living creature that is with you, of the bird, of the cattle, and of every beast of the earth with you; from all that go out of the ark, to every beast of the earth. And I will establish my covenant with you; nor shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; nor shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth." And God said, "This is the sign of the covenant which I make between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for everlasting generations. I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud. And I will remember my covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth." And God said to Noah, "This is the sign of the covenant, which I have established between Me and all flesh that is upon the earth." (Genesis 9:8-17)
Man is given the rainbow, a breathtaking display of nature, as a sign that God will never again ravage the earth by water as a punishment for man's sins.
The Midrash notes that the word dorot, "generations," is written defectively. The explanation offered is that certain generations will need this sign, while others will not. These superior generations possess righteousness, or righteous men, rendering the symbol of God controlling His wrath superfluous. Among the generations thus singled out was the generation of Rashbi (acronym of Rav Shimon Bar Yochai); in the subsequent Midrashim it becomes apparent that the righteous to whom the text refers is Rashbi himself.
Elijah of blessed memory and Rabbi Joshua ben Levi were sitting and studying together, when they came to a ruling of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai . Said one: "Here is the author of the ruling: let us go and question him about it." So Elijah of blessed memory went to him, "Who is with you?" he asked. "The greatest of his generation, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi," he answered. "Has the rainbow appeared in his days?" he inquired, "if it has, he is not worthy of being received by me."
Rabbi Hezekiah related in Rabbi Jeremiah's name: "Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai had but to say, 'O field, O field, be filled with gold dinars,' and it was filled." Rabbi Hezekiah related in Rabbi Jeremiah's name: "Thus did Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai say: 'If Abraham is willing, he can effectively intercede for [all generations] from his days until mine, while I can intercede for [all generations] from my time until the advent of Messiah. While if he is not willing, let Ahijah the Shilonite unite with me, and we can intercede for all from the days of Abraham until those of Messiah.'" Rabbi Hezekiah said in Rabbi Jeremiah's name: "Thus did Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai say: 'The world possesses not less than thirty men as righteous as Abraham. If there are thirty, my son and I are two of them; if ten, my son and I are two of them; if five, my son and I are two of them; if two, they are my son and I; if there is but one, it is I.'" (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis 35:2)
Despite the perhaps unparalleled greatness of Rashbi, we are somewhat taken aback by these declarations, of his own piety and greatness. This statement is not an isolated "slip of the tongue". We find numerous statements in the Talmud, where Rashbi makes similar statements.
Hezekiah further stated in the name of Rabbi Jeremiah who said it in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai , "I am able to exempt the whole world from judgment from the day that I was born until now, and were Eliezer, my son, to be with me [we could exempt it] from the day of the creation of the world to the present time, and were Yotam the son of Uzziah with us, [we could exempt it] from the creation of the world to its final end."
Hezekiah further stated in the name of Rabbi Jeremiah who said it in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai , "I have seen the sons of heaven and they are but few. If there be a thousand, I and my son are among them; if a hundred, I and my son are among them; and if only two, they are I and my son." (Sukkah 45b)
Again, we find supreme self-confidence, bordering on arrogance. It seems strange that the merit of such a man would obviate the appearance of the rainbow in his generation.
This idiosyncratic statement may also be found in one of the most famous passages regarding Rashbi. An understanding of that passage holds a key for the entire topic.
For Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yossi, and Rabbi Shimon were sitting, and Yehuda, a son of proselytes, was sitting near them. Rabbi Yehuda commenced [the discussion] by observing, "How fine are the works of this people! They have made streets, they have built bridges, they have erected baths." Rabbi Yossi was silent. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai answered and said, "All that they made they made for themselves; they built market-places, to set harlots in them; baths, to rejuvenate themselves; bridges, to levy tolls for them." Now, Yehuda the son of proselytes went and related their talk, which reached the government. They decreed: "Yehuda, who exalted [us], shall be exalted, Yossi, who was silent, shall be exiled to Sepphoris, Shimon, who censured, let him be executed." (Shabbat 33b)
The passage begins with the description of the deep-seated enmity which Rashbi held for the Romans. In the wake of the Hadrianic persecutions this is certainly understandable. Though this approach would seem valid on a personal level, surely the response of Rashbi transcends personal feelings and calculations.
Rashbi refused to be seduced by the beauty of the Roman edifice.
The Talmud recounts how the other sages had made their peace with the Roman occupation, and had even come to appreciate the Roman contribution to the physical infrastructure of Judea. Rashbi, on the other hand, refused to be seduced by the beauty of the Roman edifice.
He and his son went and hid themselves in the Bet Hamidrash,[and] his wife brought him bread and a mug of water and they dined. [But] when the decree became more severe he said to his son, "Women are of unstable temperament: she may be put to the torture and expose us." So they went and hid in a cave. A miracle occurred and a carob-tree and a water well were created for them. They would strip their garments and sit up to their necks in sand. The whole day they studied; when it was time for prayers they robed, covered themselves, prayed, and then put off their garments again, so that they should not wear out. Thus they dwelt twelve years in the cave. (Shabbat 33b)
Now, in the face of the Roman threat, Rashbi retreats to a cave, together with his son Rebbi Eliezer. The two study day and night for twelve years, in a manner which reminds us of the Garden of Eden: the tree, the stream, the nakedness all being symbols of the purity and beauty of man at his apex, prior to that first act of infamy. The two studied and ascended from level to level in knowledge and fear of God.
LEAVING THE CAVE
After some time, Elijah stands at the door of the cave and invites them to leave:
Then Elijah came and stood at the entrance to the cave and exclaimed, "Who will inform the son of Yochai that the emperor is dead and his decree annulled?" So they emerged. Seeing a man plowing and sowing, they exclaimed, "They forsake life eternal and engage in life temporal!" Whatever they cast their eyes upon was immediately burnt up. (Shabbat 33b)
Leaving their cave proved quite difficult for Rashbi and Rebbe Eliezer. Obviously, seeing people not completely righteous, not totally immersed in Torah, was traumatic for Rashbi and consequently, for the entire world.
Thereupon a Heavenly Echo came forth and cried out, "have you emerged to destroy My world: Return to your cave!" (Shabbat 33b)
God wished to protect the world from this great man. Upon contemplation, the decision to return them to the cave seems strange: the years in the cave are apparently what caused this distorted worldview. Perhaps it would have been more appropriate to send them anywhere but back to the cave.
The problem was not that he had spent too long in the cave, but not long enough.
However, upon leaving the cave for the second time one year later, something interesting happens: Rashbi is indeed healed, while his son Rebbi Eliezer continues hurling fire. Only at the end is the son healed as well.
So they returned and dwelt there twelve months, saying, "The punishment of the wicked in Gehenna (purgatory) is [limited to] twelve months." A Heavenly Echo then came forth and said, "Go forth from your cave!" Thus they exited: wherever Rabbi Eliezer wounded, Rabbi Shimon healed. Said he to him, "My son! You and I are sufficient for the world." On the eve of the Shabbat before sunset they saw an old man holding two bundles of myrtle and running at twilight. "What are these for?" they asked him. "They are in honor of the Shabbat," he replied. "But one should suffice you." [He responded:]"One is for Remember and one for Observe." Said [Rashbi] to his son, "See how precious are the commandments to Israel." His mind was tranquilized. (Shabbat 33b)
Obviously, returning to the cave had some type of calming affect and served as the impetus of Rashbi's "rehabilitation." In retrospect, the initial problem was not that he had spent too long in the cave, but not long enough.
STUDENTS OF HILLEL
In order to understand this idea we need to see another passage, which tells us about another set of great rabbis, the students of Hillel.
Our rabbis have taught: "Hillel the Elder had eighty disciples, thirty of whom were worthy of the Divine Spirit resting upon them, as [it did upon] Moses our Master, thirty of whom were worthy that the sun should stand still for them [as it did for] Joshua the son of Nun, [and the remaining] twenty were ordinary. The greatest of them was Yonatan ben Uzziel, the smallest of them was Yochanan ben Zakkai.
They said of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai that he did not leave [unstudied] Scripture, Mishnah, Gemara, Halachah, Aggada, details of the Torah, details of the Scribes, inferences a minori ad majus, analogies, calendrical computations gematrias, the speech of the Ministering Angels, the speech of spirits, and the speech of palm-trees, fullers' parables and fox fables, great matters or small matters ... in order to fulfill what is said, 'That I may cause those that love me to inherit substance, and that I may fill their treasuries.' And if the smallest of them was so great, how much more so was the greatest? They said of Yonatan ben Uzziel that when he used to sit and occupy himself with the study of the Torah, every bird that flew above him was immediately burnt." (Sukkah 28a)
The least of Hillel's students possessed a dazzling array of knowledge, the scope of which is difficult to imagine. After describing Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai's intellectual prowess and knowledge, we can only wonder about the exalted level of his superior colleague, Rav Yonatan ben Uzziel, the intensity of whose Torah personality caused passing birds to be consumed by fire.
This passage has an interesting postscript, told in Chassidic circles:
Once a Chassidic Rebbe was learning the above passage with his son. The son had one question: If the least of the students possesses superior knowledge, and the greatest student has combustible passion, what is the exalted level of the Master? The son was probing his father, attempting to discern the essence of being a Rebbe. The Rebbe answered that Hillel the Elder was on such an exalted level that when a bird would fly above nothing would happen; it would remain unscathed. This is the sublime secret of being a teacher. Students are often filled with passion. The secret of teaching is the ability to harness the passion, to control the fire.
The secret of teaching is the ability to harness the passion, to control the fire.
When Rashbi leaves the cave the first time, he is still a student - full of passion, but still a student. The world is black and white in his eyes: either someone is directly, constantly involved in Torah, or they are wasting their lives and are unable to justify their existence. The voice from heaven effectively declares that Rashbi needs to learn more. He must undergo the metamorphosis from student to teacher, from secretive mystic to Tzaddik who will take responsibility for the world and be prepared to do all to save the world. He must learn how to harness the power. He must become like Hillel - when birds fly over his head, they will remain unharmed.
ARGUMENT WITH AN ANGEL
This metamorphosis is discernable in an amazing passage in the Zohar:
Once Rav Shimon bar Yochai went out and saw that the world was dark and cloudy and all the lights had been sealed. He said to his son Rebbe Eliezer, "Let us go and see, what God has planned for the world." They went and came to one angel that looked like a large mountain, with thirty large torches of fire in its mouth. Rav Shimon said: "What are you planning to do?" He said, "I came to destroy the world, because there are not thirty righteous people in this generation, for God had [thus] decreed to Abraham..." Rav Shimon said to him, "I order you ? go in front of God and say to Him "Bar Yochai is in the world."
The angel went in front of God and said: "Master of the universe, it is known to you what Bar Yochai said to me." God said, "Go destroy the world and ignore Bar Yochai." When he (the angel) returned, Rav Shimon saw the angel, and said, "If you do not leave I will decree on you that you will not return to heaven, rather you will be in a place of Aza and Azael (Hell). Go to God and say to Him: 'If there are not thirty righteous, then twenty should suffice ... if not twenty then ten should suffice ... if not ten then two should be enough, and there is me and my son ... and if two is not good, then one should be enough, and that is me(!) as it says A righteous man is the foundation of the world.'" At that moment a voice rang out of heaven and said, "Fortunate is your portion Rav Shimon, for God decrees above, and you rescind below. Certainly about you the verse is written The will of those who fear Him is done." (Zohar Addendum page 205 ? the proper place should be 105b)
Rashbi's response seems like the supreme arrogant statement: "I order you ? go in front of God and say to Him 'Bar Yochai is in the world.'" However, when we consider the previous passage in the Talmud, we can understand this statement, and begin to penetrate the greatness of Rashbi: When he left the cave the first time, he wanted to destroy all evil. Inconsistency would not be tolerated. After 12 years in a cave, all that he knew was learning, perfection. Anyone not learning should perish. The power of Torah raged within his essence and then poured forth with a vengeance. There was only one problem: God did not concur with the Rashbi's actions.
God would not allow the world to be destroyed. "Go back to the cave," God said to him. "Learn one more lesson." When they left the cave the second time, an old man holding myrtle provides the lesson.
LIKE A RAINBOW
The world is not "black and white," rather it is composed of many hues and shades, like the rainbow. God taught Rashbi this phenomenal lesson: The world is awaiting redemption. Instead of the tzaddik taking a stance of superiority, which manifests itself with judgmental airs, he must take responsibility for his generation, and indeed the entire world.
When Rashbi confronts the angel of destruction, he tells the angel "I order you ? go in front of God and say to Him 'Bar Yochai is in the world.'" - the same Bar Yochai whom God would not allow to destroy the world even a small piece of the world. God does not desire to see the world destroyed. God desires the righteous to take responsibility for their fellow man, and help man and the world reach its potential.
Finally, Rav Shimon takes responsibility for the world. Destruction is antithetical to this stance.
In this second passage, Rav Shimon takes responsibility for the world. Destruction is antithetical to this stance. The existence of even one tzaddik can save the world, provided the tzaddik knows how to affect the world without burning it. Rashbi apparently felt that on the day of judgement, he would be able to use this logic to exonerate the world from all guilt.
When the power of his Torah is harnessed, the true tzaddik does not burn a thing, rather achieves a beautiful harmony with all of nature. All those shades of gray can and will become lighter through the work of the tzaddik. The world is not evil, merely awaiting elevation. The tzaddik can be that catalyst, and help the world achieve its potential. Such a world will be redeemed.
Rashbi did not need a rainbow up in the heavens to remind him of God's promise and his own mission; he saw a rainbow down on earth. Noah needed a rainbow. But some generations would possess great souls with the power to redeem the world, making the appearance of the rainbow completely unnecessary. Rashbi was such a man.