Shabbat 33b-34a: Part VI - R' Shimon and Eliyahu

Continued from here.
Thus they dwelt twelve years in the cave. Then Elijah came and stood at the entrance to the cave and exclaimed, Who will inform the son of Yohai that the Emperor is dead and his decree annulled? So they emerged.

Within this narrative, and throughout Rabbinic literature, the number twelve represents wholeness, recalling the twelve months of a year or the twelve tribes of Israel. The number is invoked regarding R’ Shimon’s first and second times in the cave, and his growth in relation to R’ Pinchas b. Yair. After 12 years, it’s time for R’ Shimon to leave the cave. Twelve years is also enough time for the attitudes to soften, for a generation to mature, and for Roman domination to feel secure enough to tolerate and even welcome the contribution of its fiercest critics.

This news must reach R’ Shimon through his only, tenuous connection to the world outside: the door of the cave. The door of the cave is where R’ Shimon’s total isolation is broken into by the rest of the world and humanity. If there is any hope of R’ Shimon rejoining the world of men, something must cross that doorway.

Elijah, always the harbinger of change, hope, and ultimate redemption, bears this news. The appearance of Elijah at this point in the story is striking on several levels, which must be understood by referring to Elijah’s own story:
1 And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and withal how he had slain all the prophets with the sword. 2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger unto Elijah, saying: 'So let the gods do [to me], and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by to-morrow about this time.' 3 And when he saw that, he arose, and went for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongeth to Judah, and left his servant there. 4 But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom-tree; and he requested for himself that he might die; and said: 'It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.' 5 And he lay down and slept under a broom-tree; and, behold, an angel touched him, and said unto him: 'Arise and eat.' 6 And he looked, and, behold, there was at his head a cake baked on the hot stones, and a cruse of water. And he did eat and drink, and laid him down again. 7 And the angel of the LORD came again the second time, and touched him, and said: 'Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for thee.' 8 And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meal forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God. 9 And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and He said unto him: 'What doest thou here, Elijah?' 10 And he said: 'I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant, thrown down Thine altars, and slain Thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.' 11 And He said: 'Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD.' And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. 13 And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entrance of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said: 'What doest thou here, Elijah?' 14 And he said: 'I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the children of Israel
have forsaken Thy covenant, thrown down Thine altars, and slain Thy prophets
with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.'
(I Kings 19)
Elijah’s story bears remarkable similarity to R’ Shimon’s. Both are outspoken critics of the ruling order. Both are condemned to death for their outspokenness and are forced to flee for their lives. Both subsist on bare rations of bread and water, initially. Both hide in a cave. Both have been immortalized in Jewish lore, their influence continuing long beyond their lifetimes. Eliyahu stood at the opening of his own cave in the Biblical narrative, providing an image which makes a remarkable reappearance in the Talmudic narrative. Both are censured by God for their attitudes, which may be described as an idealism which is unwilling to meet reality. Thus, the composition of R’ Shimon’s story is, in a sense, superimposed over the earlier, Biblical story of Elijah. The stories end differently, though, as R’ Shimon manages to reintegrate with reality, whereas Eliyahu moves on to a place where his idealism need not be marred by human frailty.

Elijah’s story itself includes some difficult points to understand. The sequence of events from when Elijah reaches the cave is puzzling: he complains to God, then witnesses several cataclysms in which God is not present, until finally hearing God in the ‘still, small voice’, whereupon he emerges to the ‘entrance of the cave’ and repeats his complaint verbatim, after which he is commanded to appoint his successor, his mission concluded. The repetition of the complaint forces us to ask what happened in between the two complaints.

It seems that there’s a dual critique of Eliyahu: the first relates to his teaching methodology, which can be described as ‘evangelical’. Eliyahu’s sound and light show of the previous chapter ends in failure. It provides a temporary inspiration, but only lasts as long as the feeling lasts. The word of God is not heard in the whirlwinds and the earthquakes, but in the consistent, quiet voice.

The second critique, rooted in the first, relates to Eliyahu’s attitude toward his contemporaries; he is unable, or unwilling to understand their culture. The prophet’s role is to castigate the people, yet remain part of them. Eliyahu, in his own words, sees himself as utterly alone. His inability to communicate with his generation in a sympathetic manner moved him to use teaching methods appropriate only for the most immature audience, unable to draw its own conclusions. It is against this attitude that God calls Eliyahu ‘out of the cave’, but Eliyahu remains mired in disenfranchisement and loneliness.

In the Biblical text, Eliyahu’s fate is to be taken to Heaven while yet alive. As noted when describing R’ Shimon’s position earlier, idealist positions are rarely appropriate for the reality of this world. Eliyahu’s stance is better suited for a different, more ideal world. Thus, the punishment fits the crime.

Jewish tradition, however, as well as the Biblical book of Malachi, give Eliyahu a different fate: he is to remain a harbinger of hope and redemption. He is to eat the words that he uttered at the door of his cave. Whereas he insisted that Israel had forsaken its covenant, he is traditionally present at circumcision ceremonies, where that selfsame covenant is ever renewed. Whereas he felt that there was no hope for Israel to change, he will announce the ultimate redemption, the Messianic era, confirming the ultimate perfectibility of this world.

In our narrative, he is placed once again at the ‘door of the cave’, and heralds change. The world that R’ Shimon fled from, dominated by Roman culture and, for him, inhospitable to Jewish life, is itself in flux and open to change. J. Rubenstein points out that this segment of the story, the arrival of Eliyahu, is the structural center of the composition, the focus of its chiastic structure. Thematically, this is the moment that R’ Shimon learn that he will have something to contribute after all.

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