In a few days, Jews will celebrate the holiday of Lag BaOmer. This minor holiday marks the death of a towering mystical figure: Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.
There is a fascinating story describing Bar Yochai on his death bed as if possessed by a force compelling him to reveal all the mystical teachings he had yet to reveal, teachings that came pouring unceasingly out of him until a fire-like radiance, a brilliant light filled his house as his soul departed his body.
To me, this points to a profound teaching. In these last ecstatic moments, Bar Yochai merged with the One Light of Being and became a fire-like radiance, a burst of Light.
Bar Yochai was one of many of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples to die at that time. A plague struck Akiva’s students and claimed 24,000 lives.
We don’t exactly know what that disease was. The stories mention that, eerily enough, it was a plague characterized by a hoarse cough and difficulty breathing.
The rabbis explain that both the disease and the failure to contain it was due to great division and disunity among Akiva’s students, compounded by their inability to respect one another. The parallels to our current circumstances are shocking.
What our sages are pointing to is that the disease was symptomatic of what truly ailed Akiva’s students: namely, social dislocation. Which is why I cringe at the expression “Social Distancing.” Not only does it misstate what we are doing, but it subtly reinforces what already ails us as a nation.
What we are doing is “Physical Distancing,” not “Social Distancing.” But while physically distancing, we must also cultivate Social Solidarity, reach out to one another and nurture the social threads that connect us. We must practice “Social Solidarity” in the context of “Physical Distancing.”
This practice offers us a unique opportunity to rethink our relationships with each other, our world and our ecosystem. What is our purpose as humans? What truly defines human success? What does living a fulfilled human life mean? I would submit that it is not about getting the latest iPhone or drowning ourselves in ever more stuff. As we practice Social Solidarity, a true paradigm shift opens us up to the value of authentic human ties. We are not born to be good consumers. We are born to be good citizens, good neighbors, good caretakers of each other and of our environment.
Our mystics would say that practicing Social Solidarity wakes us up to that precious Light within each of us which Bar Yochai awakened to, to the threads of Divine Light that unite us, sustain us. May we use that newfound awareness to usher in a more loving and compassionate world.
Read more in the Apr. 29 - May 5, 2020 issue.