© 2020 Drew T. Noll

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Of Cavemen, Politicians, and Regular Folk

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was a beloved student of Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva was the spiritual guru during the Bar Kochba (Ben Kosiba) revolt in 135 CE against Rome and the only one of the four sages that entered the “Pardes,” which means Orchard in Hebrew, and came out whole, both mentally and physically. Pardes is also an acronym for Pshat (simple or plain), Remez, (hints or deep), Drash (inquire or seek), and Sod (secret or hidden), which are the four levels of Torah learning.

Rabbi Akiva passed on orally to his student, Rabbi Shimon, the Pardes of the Torah including the hidden level of Sod. Because Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was a student of the spiritual guru of the revolt against Rome, bar Yochai was relentlessly pursued by the Romans and their politicians (it didn’t help that he hung out with Rabbi Jose and Rabbi Judah, whose parents happened to be proselytes; I need to be careful here... My ego might get offended...).

The story in the Talmud goes like this:

Rabbi Judah commenced the discussion by observing, "How fine are the works of the Romans! They have made streets, they have built bridges, and they have erected baths."

Rabbi Jose remained silent.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai responded, "All that they made, they made for their own benefit. They built market-places, to set harlots in them; baths, to rejuvenate themselves; and bridges to levy tolls."

Judah, the son of proselytes, spoke of the talk that they had, which eventually reached the politicians in the government. The politicians decreed: "Judah, who exalted us, shall be exalted. Jose, who was silent, shall be exiled to Sepphoris (Tzippori in Hebrew, located in the central Galilee). and Shimon, who dissented against the Roman Empire, shall be executed."

Rabbi Shimon and his son, Rabbi Elazar, hid themselves in the Bet Midrash (study hall), and Rabbi Shimon’s wife brought them bread and water to eat. When the decree became more severe... they left and hid in a cave.

A miracle occurred and a carob-tree and a wellspring of water were created for them to eat and to drink. They would remove their clothes and bury themselves up to their necks in sand and spend the whole day studying. When it was time for prayers, they came out of the sand, dressed, prayed, and then took off their clothes again and submerged into the sand once more, so that their clothes would not wear out. They spent twelve years in the cave.

Elijah the Prophet then came and stood at the entrance to the cave and proclaimed, "Who will inform the son of Yochai that the emperor is dead and his decree annulled?" So they emerged.

Seeing a man plowing and sowing, they exclaimed, "The people forsake eternal life and engage in temporal life!" and whatever Shimon and Elazar cast their eyes upon was incinerated immediately.

A heavenly echo (Bas Kol) then came forth and announced, "Have you emerged to destroy My world? Return to your cave!"

So they returned and lived like before for another twelve months and when they said, "The punishment of the wicked in Gehenom (Hell) is limited to twelve months," A Bas Kol came forth and told them to, "Go forth from your cave!"

Now wherever Rabbi Elazar harmed with his look, Rabbi Shimon healed. Rabbi Shimon said to his son, "My son! You and I are sufficient for the world."

On the eve of Shabbat, before sunset, they saw an old man holding two bundles of myrtle and running at twilight. "What are these for?" they asked him.
"They are in honor of the Sabbath," he replied.

"But, only one should suffice for you?" they asked.

The old man replied, "One is for remembering the day of Shabbat (Exodus 20:8) and one is to guard the Shabbat (Deuteronomy 5:12)."

Rabbi Shimon said to his son, "See how precious the mitzvot are to the people of Israel?" With this, their minds were put at ease.

During those years in the cave, when Rabbi Shimon studied with his son both the revealed Torah and the hidden or secret levels of Torah (Torat HaSod), also known as Kabbalah, Rabbi Shimon wrote down the material for the first time, in a book called the Zohar, meaning Splendor or Radiance. This mystical tradition was kept alive by the Ramban with his commentary on the Bible and came alive again in the sixteenth century with the Ari, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, and their followers, in Tzfat, Palestine. Later, in the eighteenth century, Israel ben Elazar, the "Bal Shem Tov," embraced these mystical traditions again in Eastern Europe.

So, what about the bonfires on Lag baOmer? The story that I heard was when Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai died, sometime between 170-200 CE, he was in a house, communing with G-D and the heavenly court, when the light and power of that which was revealed became so unstable in this world that the house exploded in flame. Bar Yochai died in the flames and his final teaching to his devoted students was "Now it is my desire to reveal secrets...The day will not go to its place like any other, for this entire day stands within my domain..." the domain of light—of the light of Torah! Bar Yochai handed the Zohar to his students and passed, as a Tzaddik, into the next world. The Zohar, which some also say was begun by Abraham Avinu in a book called the Sefer Yitzirah (Book of Formation), was finally published in its current form by Rabbi Moshe de Leon sometime before 1305 in Spain.

All I have to say is what a lot of work to figure this all out and, in the end, I am still confused... I guess the secret level of Torah is destined to remain secret, despite the modern craze for Kabbalah and its self-help spin-off droppings, landing in a town near you!

Chag Sumeach and Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Inspiration, Paradise, and the Promised Land


Inspiration... That is what it is all about, isn't it? When I was in art school, I began to search for the reason that I would eventually move to Israel. For a long time I thought that it was all about how I was going to be recognized by others for my achievements, so I was so happy when news articles were written and shows organized around what I had done. But in the end, when the paint dried and all that I had to show for it was a few bucks and a hole where I thought there had been a child—I was empty.

Inspiration was not, evidently, enough to hold me in the long haul. Or maybe it wasn’t about the inspiration as much as what the inspiration was about. I was moving from high to low and back to high, like I was taking a drug. When I look back on that place in my life, I realize that it was self inflated and artificial. It went in circles and never really had an end. I kept thinking, if I could only get into that gallery, if I could only speak to the right art dealer at the right time... I remember when I was in a group show at L.A.C.E. in L.A. I thought, “For sure this will be it!” Then the show came down and nothing...

That happened a few times until I realized that I was looking at it all wrong. I was trying to force it in the direction that I deserved, not the direction that I needed. In Hebrew the word for wheel gal-gal (גלגל) is a very rare word that has a root that repeats itself. Isn’t it funny that a word that just, in its essence, goes around and around is written like this? Hebrew is like that—and so it turns out, was my life. Instead of staying in L.A. and going around and around until I finally got to the end of the 'my own loop'... um... you know what I mean, I began to form a line or direction, a kivun (כיוון), to follow. (Yes, there is lots of meaning in the word kivun as well. Just think Cohen, ken (yes), and serving G-D.)

When we build ourselves we have to find a path or kivun to do so, but the important part is what we are building. I moved to Boulder, Colorado after I became so empty that, from the inside, I was just begging for an excuse to get out. That excuse was miraculously provided when the Rodney King riots rang through the streets with racial tension, violence, and martial law. This move was not inspiration based; it was an attempt at saving my own life. I knew that any more time spent riding the gal-gal would surely do me in. The night I left I was woken up in the wee hours of the night from the ground under me shaking. The moving truck was packed and waiting for me to get up and drive it to Colorado. I was sleeping on the floor of my old apartment building in Santa Monica, California and the Northridge Earthquake struck. We scrambled and stumbled about until we felt safe to grab whatever we had, race down 15 flights of stairs, and start life anew. I was so empty that I apparently needed one last little shove to get me going.

Boulder was depressing. I missed my artificially inflated world of self. I spent 3 years doing nothing. Eventually, I got inspired again and started making art, woodwork, and eventually began to write a little. I searched a little in Judaism, but it was not speaking to me. Art was fun, but it was really not speaking to me either. Running my woodworking business was also interesting and challenging, but it was not speaking to me, the way I needed.

Then I met my second rabbi, Rabbi Goldfeder at a Jewish Community Center gathering. He had peyote... I like peyote, you know, the side-lock-curls that you see on Orthodox Jews. From Rabbi Goldfeder I learned that Judaism was something so much bigger than I ever expected. It was an endless amount of growth that I could start filling my empty hole with. I realized that I didn’t have to make it up at all. It was all there for me to discover, each delicious piece at a time! I was living in Boulder, Colorado. It was a place that most everyone else considered paradise. So, since I had finally learned that endless snow boarding and mountain biking was fun but really just running around and around on the gal-gal of life, it was inevitable that I would find my way, my own kivun, to the Promised Land and really start to live.

This blog is thanks to an old friend that wanted to catch up on why I moved to Israel. Thanks, it is questions like these that really get the wheels rolling!

Shalom le kulam