וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב שָׁלֵם עִיר שְׁכֶם …. וַיִּחַן אֶת פְּנֵי הָעִיר
Today is Lag La’omer (also known as Lag Ba’omer), the 33rd day of the days that connect Pesah with Shabu’ot. On this day Rabbi Shm’on bar Yohai passed away, and as a tribute to this great Sage I would like to share with you a part of the story of his life that, i believe, is not that well known.
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, who lived in the second century of the common era, was sentenced to death for having publicly criticized the Roman Empire, and he was wanted by local authorities. He and his son El’azar, escaped to a cave in Meron, a mountainous area in northern Israel. They stayed there for 12 years, drinking water from a spring and eating from a carob tree. All those years they devoted to Tora study and reached a spiritual level and a depth of understanding that had no parallel in the rabbinical world. The Zohar, the Book of Splendor, which is the most important work of Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah), contains many stories, ideas and sayings of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, which constitutes the main body of this book.
This part of the life of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai is, I think, well known. But the continuation of the that story, is not …
When Rabbi Shimon finally returned to civilization, he said to himself: “I have saved my life and my son’s life miraculously, and I must thank HaShem for this miracle.” The Gemara (Shabbat 33b) says that at that time Rabbi Shimon recalled the history of Ya’aqob Abinu, when he escaped from Laban and Esau, and arrived safely, in one piece (shalem), to the city of Shekhem. Ya’aqob was very conscious that he saved his life thanks to Divine Intervention. And the Tora says that when he arrived at Shekhem ” וַיִּחַן אֶת פְּנֵי הָעִיר ” Yaaqob “made an act of kindness” for the people of that city, Shekhem. The Gemara discusses what exactly Ya’aqob did for the inhabitants of Shekhem, and mentions three opinions. Rab said that Ya’aqob Abinu established a monetary system, matbe’a, replacing the primitive barter system, which was not as efficient. Shemuel says that Ya’aqob built for the people of Shekhem a new trading system, the market, where sellers and buyers would meet a couple of times a week. Rabbi Yohanan said that Ya’aqob Abinu set up a system of public baths, to improve the hygiene and health of the population. While they differed on what exactly Ya’aqob did, the three Rabbis agreed that Ya’aqob did a great and pro-bono act of kindness, a service for the benefit of the people of Shekhem. Then the Gemara says that when Rabbi Shimon came safely to the city, the first thing he did was asking the town’s people: Is there anything I can do for the benefit of this city? And they said “yes”. There was an area in the public market, very busy, which had been seemingly used in the past as an improvised cemetery, and as we know, the Cohanim were not able to enter the market in those circumstances. Rabbi Shimon then examined inch by inch the entire terrain, which must have taken him a few days or weeks, checking the consistency of the ground (soft ground would be evidence of digging, etc.), demarcating the areas in which he found some evidence of an ancient grave and authorizing the Cohanim to come into the “clean” areas. Thus, he provided a great service to the people of the city.
The lesson we learn from these two stories is extremely important and relevant: How can we thank HaShem for all the good things He did and does for us? What is the Jewish way of “doing a favor to God”, when we want to express Him our gratitude? Well, according to our patriarch Ya’aqob and according to Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, the Jewish way of thanking God is doing acts of kindness for others, in a sense, for “His children”. In the same way that many times, the best way to thank a friend for a favor he did to us, is by doing a favor for one of his children ….
When we want to thank HaShem, we should do something good for others, with our assets, as Ya’aqob Abinu did, or with our service, like Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai.