In 2021, a rabbi emerges from the cave

Members attend a lecture in the sanctuary in 2019. (Photos courtesy of Rabbi Charles L. Arian)

By Rabbi Charles Arian

In Tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud, there appears the story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son, Rabbi Elazar, who lived in Roman-occupied Israel and were sentenced to death for criticizing the Emperor. They went to hide in a cave and spent 12 years there, studying Torah and surviving off a carob tree and a spring of water, which were miraculously provided for them.

After 12 years, the Emperor died and their death sentence was lifted. Elijah the Prophet came to the cave and let them know that it was safe for them to come out.

They emerged from the cave, and saw people who were plowing and sowing. Rabbi Shimon said “these people abandon eternal life (Torah study) and engage in temporal life.” Every place where Rabbi Shimon or Rabbi Elazar directed their eyes was immediately burned up. A divine voice emerged from the heavens and said, “Did you emerge from your cave in order to destroy My world? Get back to your cave!”

I was reminded of this story as, two weeks-plus after my second COVID vaccine, I began to emerge from my cave. Monday afternoon I went to the service desk at Safeway to drop off a FedEx envelope and yesterday morning I went to Dunkin Donuts to buy breakfast for Keleigh and me. It was a very strange experience after over a year of not having been inside a store or food service establishment. It was weird to see that the tables and chairs had been removed from Dunkin and that there was a physical barrier to keep customers from getting too close to the cashier. I had difficulty reading the menu since my mask made my glasses fog up but I can’t see almost anything without my glasses, and after receiving my coffee I absentmindedly tried to start drinking it while still wearing my mask!

Unlike Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar, I was not upset to see people engaging in normal economic activity when I emerged from the cave (although I was upset that I had to wait quite a while for someone to come to the service desk at Safeway). I am grateful that I’ve been able to do my job from the safety of my home while people who are employed in essential services continued to work. I did not rely on a miraculous carob tree and spring but rather Instacart and Uber Eats. Nevertheless I have to confess that emerging from my cave has so far been a weird and disorienting experience.

Rabbi Charles Arian leads Kehilat Shalom in Gaithersburg. He originally posted this piece on Facebook.

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