Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Lag B’Omer: Lessons From The Cave

Three years ago, I went to Eretz Yisrael in the summer along with my son. On our itinerary were visits to Meron and Tzfat so we could daven at the kivrei tzadikim. I was warned that Waze can direct you through Arab territories unless you adjust the settings to avoid those areas. I even asked someone to review the route Waze gave me to ensure we’d be fine. When we were up North, Waze told us to exit the highway. Suddenly, the signs switched from Hebrew to Arabic and the look of the people got me a little nervous. Yet, the road was narrow and mountainous, which made sense for Meron, so I figured we must be going in the right direction. The road soon opened up and once again, it looked like an Arab neighborhood. I was getting very nervous. Moments later, with Arab homes on both sides, Waze said, “You have reached your destination!” It had been many years since my last time in Meron, but I knew this most definitely was not the kever of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (the “Rashbi”).

My heart started palpitating and I was terrified. I pulled to the side of the road and davened a few chapters of Tehillim with an urgent plea to Hashem to please get us out of here quickly and safely. I called a friend of mine and asked him how to exit as quickly as possible. Thirty seconds later, a van pulled up and three people with white shirts and tzitis got out and walked toward our car. I asked them, “What are you doing here? Aren’t you guys scared to walk around an Arab neighborhood?” They said, “This is a Druze village. They are friendly to Jews; no need to worry.” Still, I was curious—why were they here also? The mystery unraveled. “This city is where you’ll find the actual cave where Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (known as the Rashbi) hid with his son to escape the Romans. Would you like to come join us while we daven by the cave?”

I thanked Hashem for answering my prayers by sending me Eliyahu Hanavi in the guise of these people and off we drove. On Lag B’Omer, thousands of Jews go to daven at the kever of the Rashbi, but not many go to the actual cave where he hid. I had the merit of saying Tehillim near that cave where his intensive study took place!

When the Rashbi hid from the Romans, who had sentenced him to death, Hashem miraculously made a carob tree grow and a stream of water flow at the entrance to the cave. That’s how he and his son survived for 13 years. His uninterrupted study and writing helped make the secrets of the Torah in the Zohar available to scholars, which eventually made it available to all who wished to study it. Rabbi Shimon endured tremendous physical suffering during that time. The Gemara records that Rabbi Shimon went to the springs of Tiveria to heal his cracked skin. Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, his son-in-law, accompanied him and when he saw the cracks and bleeding skin, exclaimed, “Woe is to me that I see you in such a bad condition.” Rabbi Shimon responded, “Fortunate are you to see me in this condition, for if it were not for this predicament in which Hashem has placed me, I would not have achieved and accomplished what I have done.” Rabbi Shimon taught us an important life lesson. Although difficult times happen and seem harsh, many are life-enhancing opportunities that Hashem has provided to us.

Last Lag B’Omer we were locked in our homes like the cave of Rabbi Shimon. Baruch Hashem, this year we are emerging from the cave! We need to recognize that our time in the “cave” was an incubation period that helped us achieve higher levels in our avodas Hashem. My morning learning chabura intensified their study during this period. Attendance and consistency, via Zoom and in person, increased, and we delved deeper into the Gemara than we have ever done before. The cave provided us with the opportunity for tremendous accomplishment in our Torah learning and development of character.

Rav Yaakov Emden says Lag B’Omer is a yom tov, which is why we do not recite tachanun in davening on that day. Even those who do not take haircuts or make weddings during Sefira, suspend their observance of Sefira on that day.

Although it might sound paradoxical to have a holiday on the day of the passing of the Rashbi, the Arizal tells us that it is a hillula, a yom tov. Why? Rebbe Shimon teaches that when people learn the words of a talmid chacham who passed away, his lips move in the grave, uttering the words that he once taught.

The talmid chacham lives on through his words of Torah. And Rabbi Shimon lives on through the incredible words of Torah that we learn from his writings.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Acharei Mot-Kedoshim – The Secret To Living Forever

I was speaking recently with Rabbi Shalom Garfinkel, from Project 613 of Chicago, for advice about our building campaign for Yeshiva Ner Boruch—PTI. He shared an insight he heard from Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman when they last met. He asked Rabbi Wachsman, “What drives sports players and sports fans? What’s the big deal if they win or lose?” Rabbi Wachsman replied, “It’s the Hall of Fame that drives them. People want to be champions and feel connected to champions. They want to be the greatest of all time. ‘Winning’ creates’ a legacy for a person and through that legacy he can live forever. This is evidenced by the Hebrew word for victory, nitzachon. The root of the word nitzachon is “netzach”—which means ‘forever.’”

This universal drive to succeed was ingrained by Hashem into Adam and Chava, who were originally intended to live forever. But after they sinned by eating from the eitz hadas (Tree of Knowledge), Hashem punished mankind with a limited lifespan. In truth, our neshama lives forever, and we hope to merit techiyas hameisim (resurrection of the dead) where our body will once again be reunited with our soul.

Many people love the idea of leaving a legacy, being admired for their accomplishments or even just having their name on a plaque on a wall. But that’s something finite. Genuine satisfaction comes from adding true value and meaning to their time on this earth. For example, when you present someone with an opportunity to help erect a building devoted to the study and practice of Torah and he seizes that opportunity by providing financial and other support, that action lasts forever. Torah itself is infinite and eternal, and by partnering to build and support a makom Torah, one gets infinite and eternal reward.

We get a clear glimpse of that eternal reward from a pasuk in Parshas Acharei Mos, “You shall observe My decrees and My laws that man shall carry out and by which he shall live.” Rashi says the reward for performance of a mitzvah will be enjoyed in the next world/eternally, while things in this world are temporal and can only be enjoyed while one is alive. The Torah is telling us clearly that the reward one receives for the performance of mitzvos lasts now and forever.

Yet, there is a troubling question on this explanation, as the Gemara expounds from the words, “v’chai bahem”—by which he shall live (i.e., the mitzvos). This indicates that one must perform the mitzvos in a manner that does the maximum to preserve his own physical life. Indeed, if one’s life is in danger and the only way to save his life is by violating a mitzvah, he must violate the mitzvah to save his life (except for the three cardinal sins.) So…do we have a contradiction? Are the words “you shall live by them” referring to preserving our physical life now, or do they refer to eternal life received as a reward for the performance of mitzvos?

Rav Shimon Schwab offers a fundamental concept to answer this question, with an encounter he had with the Chofetz Chaim. Rav Schwab frequently spoke of the one Shabbos he spent as a guest of the Chofetz Chaim when he was 20 years old. The Chofetz Chaim asked Rav Schwab, “What do you have in mind when you say in the Shacharis davening (at the end of Uva Letzion, right before Aleinu) “vechayei olam nata besocheinu”—and He implanted eternal life inside us?

Rav Schwab did not know what to respond so he remained silent. Then the Chofetz Chaim asked, “Where are you going to be in 500 years?” Without waiting for Rav Schwab to reply, the Chofetz Chaim answered, “With Hashem.” And continued, “Where are you going to be in 5,000 years?” And answered again, “With Hashem. And in five million years? With Hashem. You are always with Hashem.”

That’s what the pasuk means by “eternal life implanted inside of you.” We are eternally connected to Hashem, therefore every mitzvah we perform while we are alive strengthens that connection and creates a stronger bond that will remain with us…forever!

Every day of our lives we are building our eternity. The way we live here in this world determines how we live in the next world. The only difference is we will be without a body. Therefore, there is no contradiction in the meaning of “by which you shall live,’’ as the actions we perform now create our future forever. That is what it means by “He planted eternity inside us.”

Each mitzvah we perform creates an eternal bond between us and Hashem, on the basis of which we “live forever.” Our actions in this regard have eternal value—more than a legacy and more than any plaque or award. Torah and mitzvos develop and benefit our souls and make possible our eternal existence.