In the Jewish world at large, and in Hebrew literature in particular, the being given one’s acronym is one of the greatest honors that authors, scholars or philosophers can receive. These acronyms signify that we consider that person to be one of the gdolei ha’dor (one of the greats of his or her generation), and that he or she holds a permanent place in Jewish cultural history.
For example, we know the well-known and brilliant medieval legal scholar, physician and philosopher Moses Maimonides by the acronym Rabam. In a similar manner, we call Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzak, the greatest Biblical commentator of medieval France and considered by many to be medieval Europe’s greatest mind, by the acronym “Rashi.”
Throughout the Talmudic text, we find many such luminaries. Despite the great distance in time from their lives to ours, each one speaks with a timeless and universal truth. Each of these great men and women present a message that challenges the mind and speaks to the heart. Their ideas know no borders, but instead they are ubiquitous, crossing geographic, cultural, linguistic and temporal boundaries. In that sense, they serve to remind us that we are all human beings — special creatures each made in the image of God.
This month, we turn to one such personage: a man who lived almost 2,000 years ago during the Roman occupation of Israel. Although unknown to many Western scholars, the philosophy and ideas of Shimon ben Yochai are as relevant and impactful for us who live in the Western world today as they were almost 2,000 years ago. Delving into his story, it becomes clear that Rabbi Shimon was not only one of Israel’s great minds but also deserving of having received the honor of being called by the acronym “Rashbi.”
Who was the man behind the acronym Rashbi? We know that he lived in Roman-occupied Israel during the second century of the Common Era. He was a disciple of the greatest mind of that period, Rabbi Akiva. It was Akiva who inspired the final — and failed — revolt against the armies of Roman occupation.
The Talmudic literature describes those times as empty, dark and desolate — a highly accurate description, as the revolt ended with the death of more than 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students. Despite the Roman decree against the ordination of new rabbis, and under penalty of death, Rabbi Shimon was brave enough to be ordained and escaped from the Roman legions with perhaps nothing more than his life.
Rashbi’s life is one of paradoxes. He was a follower of Akiva, yet he disagreed with Akiva’s bellicose policies. In today’s world we might call him a “realistic pacifist” or perhaps a “popularist.” Rashbi was less interested in consistency than he was in results. Like the Biblical writer Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), Rashbi understood that there was a time for war and a time to make peace, a time for despair and a time for joy.
Despite his pacifist tendencies, Rashbi was outspoken against Roman rule. His critiques were so precise and poignant that, according to the Talmud, his son and he had to hide in a cave for 13 years. The Talmudic text reports that God placed a stream and carob tree in front of their cave, thus providing Rabbi Shimon and his son the necessary sustenance by which to survive.
Rabbi Simeon was a great scholar and political analyst, no easy feats for a man hiding in a cave and in a land under occupation. Rashbi, however, was no mere scholar or political commentator. He not only offered words of wisdom but also performed numerous miracles. Rashbi’s miracles healed the physically sick and the mentally tortured. He made the sick well and turned psychological melancholy into hope. Many believed that his words rose directly to the gates of heaven. Yet despite his ability to perform miracles, Rashbi was modest and insisted that miracles are not signs from God but tools to make life better.
In legal matters, Rabbi Shimon was what today we would call a “strict constructionist.” Paradoxically, despite his strict interpretation of Biblical law, he is also considered to be the author of the Judaism’s greatest work of mysticism, the Zohar. It is from the Zohar that a whole genre of Kabbalistic literature arose, and it that same Kabbalistic literature that even today influences tens of thousands of people.
Rashbi understood the theological and political power of humility. Legend about him teach us that God noted that Rabbi Shimon, upon emerging from his cave, had lost touch with the common folk and saw himself as better than they were. A heavenly voice commanded him to return to the cave until he might reorient himself and learn to live with people on their own terms rather than on his. The Talmud uses this story to teach us that academic and political leaders must be part of the public. They dare not separate themselves from those whom they seek to teach and lead or consider themselves to be superior. To be a true leader is to live by the Talmudic maxim: Eizehu Chacham? Ha’Lomed micol adam (Who is wise? The one who can learn from each and every person!)
Rabbi Shimon’s life reminds us that those who see themselves as superior to others fail themselves, their people and God. The Talmudic legend reports that Rashbi heard God, returned to his cave and emerged only after having learned the lessons of humility. It was then, only after his second emergence, that Rashbi became not only a great scholar but also a humble servant to the nation.
Today Rashbi’s writings serve as lessons in humility and as reminders that teachers and leaders dare not separate themselves from the people they serve. Rashbi taught that a true leader, or teacher, like Moses, humbly defends his people despite its failings.
Rabbi Shimon was often ahead of his time. Long before the term democracy was coined, Rashbi understood its principles. He respected, rather than resisted, the majority’s opinion even when he disagreed.
Rabbi Simon’s humble yet pragmatic leadership style demonstrated universal love: He understood that no one was God, that we all are fallible, and no one has a monopoly on truth.
Today, thousands of people each year travel to northern Israel to pray at the grave of Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai and to be reminded that the arrogant do not lead and rarely do they succeed.
Rabbi Simon taught that all of us are fellow citizens. We might not always agree with each other, but we must learn to respect each other. Rabbi Shimon’s life teaches us that we can never be so certain of ourselves as to dismiss other people’s ideas.
To study Rashbi’s life is to learn that those who live in a time of deep intellectual and political divisions, and who suffer from arrogance and elitism, have much to learn from this simple miracle worker who not only cured the sick but also society. Perhaps Rashbi is not only one of the gdolei-ha’dor, a luminary of his generation, but also of ours.
As we are now in the period between Rosh Ha’Shanah and Yom Kippur I wish for each of you to have a blessed 5780 and to be inscribed in Sefer Ha’Chayim (The Book of Life).
Peter Tarlow is the rabbi emeritus at Texas A&M Hillel Foundation in College Station. He is a chaplain for the College Station Police Department and teaches at the Texas A&M College of Medicine.