The Cave and the Future

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, September 11, 2020 / 22 Elul 5780

Important Announcements because of Wildfires

  1. Aliyah Change of Start Date
    Our ALIYAH program has made the decision to postpone the beginning of classes by two weeks because of the impact of fires, smoke, and delayed school scheduling on our families and teachers. ALIYAH families, please watch for an announcement today about new dates for a drive-through program to pick up materials and meet teachers as well as new start dates for Hebrew online and tutoring programming.
  2. Mahzor Pickup
    If you still have not picked up your Mahzor, Sunday pickup is cancelled. Please contact Michelle Caplan to arrange pickup next week.
  3. Fire Assistance
    Please let us know about congregants who have been evacuated, etc. The Jewish Federation has also worked quickly to secure we funds to help (and JFCS is here to assist!) those impacted by the wildfires. Please contact them directly if you need financial assistance. I’d request you also contact CNS as we want to stay aware of congregant needs, provide help and plug service gaps as we are able.
  4. Rebbe’s Zoom Tish
    I know some of us are feeling particularly isolated or would just like to talk. This Saturday, after services (led by Rabbi Eve and Cantor Bitton), approximately 11:45, I will hold a Zoom based “rebbe’s tish”—an opportunity to sit and chat for those who wish.
    Here is the link, or cut and paste this into your browser window:

Summary: While trying to make my house more smoke-resistant, an old Talmudic story came to mind and reminded me of some important lessons that are probably useful at anytime, but that felt particularly relevant.

The Cave and the Future

Let me begin by sending you my prayers and blessings. I sincerely hope that you are safe. It seems we are faced with one trial after another, and these fires are just the latest challenge. Just this morning, I was taping shut our basement door, which is probably original to our 73 year old home. After all that time, it doesn’t form the tightest seal, and smoke was infiltrating. The masking tape seems to have stopped most of that.

There’s something about the real, the authentic, the genuine article, that speaks to the human soul. This is arguably one major reason why New Coke failed so epically when it was released in 1985. Despite the many successful blind taste tests in which people preferred the new recipe over all other colas, the company had underestimated people’s attachment both to the brand, and to the notion of realness.

This line of thought has occupied many of us in recent months, because the pandemic has challenged us to embrace the new, even as we have sought ways to cling to the old. Deciding what is real in a time of rapid change isn’t easy—and probably only with hindsight will we be able to understand and evaluate the decisions made now.

To this day, large numbers of MBA students learn about the Coke fiasco in business school. Preoccupation with authenticity is an ancient and perennial concern. When we buy a jar of honey, we want to know that it contains only natural honey, and not other sweeteners. If we bid on a Picasso or Rembrandt painting, we want to ensure it’s not a masterful copy. Even if we couldn’t tell the difference with the copy and the original side by side, part of the value of the painting is its provenance. Where does it come from?

Unsurprisingly, our Talmudic Sages asked similar questions more than 1500 years ago. The Bible commands us to make Rosh Hashanah a “yom teruah,” a day of shofar blasts, in its typically terse manner. Our Sages were confronted with the subject of authenticity and how to fulfill God’s will when a question was asked if people could meet their obligation to hear the shofar blasts if it was blown at the bottom of a well.

Would that shofar fulfill the mitzvah for those standing up above? The answer given is no, because the narrow walls of the well shaft would create numerous echoes, and it would be impossible to determine if one was hearing the shofar itself, or merely its echo. In other words, people wouldn’t be hearing “the real thing,” and therefore wouldn’t be following what God and the Torah stated.

This interesting question has been revisited over the years. If one hears a shofar through a loudspeaker, does it count? Before you rush to answer yes, now imagine that some feedback or squelch gets mixed in. Do you still feel the same way? In the past, answers to that modern dilemma were mixed, with those who felt it still counted as a shofar blast studying the science of microphones, and analog signals. In the digital age, the nearly universal answer has been that a shofar relayed over digital networks is not a shofar blast at all, because the original sound is converted into 1’s and 0’s, sent over a network, and then reshaped on the other end in slightly different ways, depending on your computer and its digital to analog converter. It is completely disassembled sound. In layman’s terms, what we hear is less than an echo and more like freeze dried ice-cream.

That said, Judaism is so ancient, that we have many historical instances of how we reference the past. Thus, there is a way that our prayers and even the Passover shankbone are a “zekher l’korban” or a memorial to the sacrifices our ancestors used to bring. In this way, we acknowledge the difference betwen what is real and what is a copy, even as hold on to the emotional connection we feel with the past.

Given these reflections, there will be three different ways to experience the shofar this way on Sunday, September 20th. Two will be the “real thing” and one will be a zekher l’shofar, or a remembrance of the shofar. That latter will occur during the Zoom service run by lay leaders with support from Rabbi Isaak and Cantor Shivers.

Then there are the two opportunities to hear the shofar blasts live. From 11:30 am-2:30 pm, those who have preregistered for their slot in front of the ark will get to hear the shofar sounded on Holzman Plaza by three of our amazing shofar blowers—Glen Coblens, Liza Milliner and Alan Montrose.

Finally, there will be a city-wide “Shofar Across Oregon” experience at 4 pm. The plan is for anyone with a shofar to sound it outside their homes at that time. The hope is that regardless of where individuals live, as many people as possible will be able to fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the shofar sounded.

Because of these changes, this year we will be following the oldest, Biblically mandated method of blowing the shofar, which consists of nine notes or blasts. If you are planning to participate in the Shofar Across Oregon, here is the minimum requirement for sounding the shofar:

Tekiah; Shevarim-T’ruah; Tekiah
TAs I was engaged in this peculiar task, my thoughts turned to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son, Elazar. They lived during the time of the Roman persecutions under the reign of Hadrian (117-138 CE). Hadrian’s persecution of the Jews is notorious. According to Eliyahu Rabbah, he slaughtered 50,000 Jews in Alexandria. His violence gave rise to two Jewish rebellions, one in Cyrene and one in Alexandria. This was the period that the section of High Holiday liturgy known as Eleh Ezkerah commemorates. It recounts the murder of ten great sages.

Thus it was that after he died and a new emperor, Antoninus Pius, took over, the people hoped for improved conditions. In large measure, the state of things improved for many, although not all.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashb”i), however, continued to be harassed by the authorities in part because he was critical of the governor’s leadership, and feared the ways in which Roman hegemony threatened Jewish culture and autonomy. For his honesty, a warrant for his death was issued. Fearing for his life, Shimon bar Yochai and his son Elazar fled to a cave in front of which a small creek flowed.

According to legend, they hid there for 13 years, drinking from the stream, and eating from a carob tree that grew outside the cave. If you are limited to just one food, carob isn’t a bad choice. To prevent their one set of clothes from wearing out, they apparently took them off and covered themselves in sand up to their necks. They passed their days studying Torah, and this very pure, isolated life changed them into such pious individuals that Elijah the prophet visited them twice a day, teaching them hidden mystical knowledge. Because of this Talmudic legend, Rashb”i was credited with composing the Zohar, although most scholars believe it was written by Moshe DeLeon in the 13th century.

When the Roman governor finally died and the warrant on him had expired, Bar Yochai and his son ventured back into the world. What they saw were people plowing and planting—living their lives in other words. But after living apart for so long, Rashb”i was disgusted by people’s materialism and the shallowness of their existence. Why weren’t they spending their time learning Torah? Why weren’t they engaged in higher pursuits? Everywhere he looked, his rage instantly scorched the ground—such were the powers he developed in the cave. At that moment, however, a Divine voice rang out, ““Have you come out of the cave just to destroy My world? Go back to your cave!”

After one additional year in the cave, Shimon bar Yochai and Elazar had learned their lessons, and returned to society.

Taping my basement door made me wonder what were those lessons that Rashb”i learned, and what can we take from his experience? After all, between the pandemic and now these fires, so many of us are restricted to our own “caves”—to the four walls of our homes. While we may not be buried in sand, we are definitely not wearing our good clothes as often. As a consequence, they won’t wear out.

In short, like Shimon bar Yochai, we are sheltering in place to save our lives. Speaking personally, I have also used this period to learn a bit more Torah than normal. It strengthens my faith and helps me feel reasonably centered and pretty good.

Yet this powerful legend reminds us of the dangers of isolation and of education. We know the more obvious risks, such as loneliness, because each of us experiences the downsides in our own way. We are also being reminded that we need to stay connected to one another and that when we come out of our caves, how other people behave may seem a bit stranger than what we remembered. We’ve all been changed by these ordeals, and patience is called for.

A higher order demand is also being placed on us by this story, because this story is written by and for the elites of their age. It is a Talmudic cautionary tale against spiritual and intellectual hubris. It is a lesson to relinquish those of our beliefs that lead to polarization, for such beliefs, noble and correct though they may be, still scorch the ground upon which we all must stand.

Shimon bar Yochai may well have known more than others what a good life demands of us and how best to use our limited time. We may well be more enlightened than someone; we may have a better idea of what society should look like. Even so, we can’t use that as a weapon against others or the world. We can’t bury ourselves in the sand.

Because you know what? Even with my door taped shut, some of the smoke still wends its way in. We are all in this together.

May we all find ways to deepen our compassion. May what we know not blind us to the needs and fears of other. May those commitments help ensure that the future is a shared one, with blessings sufficient for all.

Shanah tovah,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. Have you ever eaten whole carob pods (not the seeds!), also known as St. John’s Bread? When did you first try one? What did you think of it?
  2. What is the closest parallel in your own life to Shimon bar Yochai’s time in the cave? What did you learn from that time?

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.

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