1/12/2006

R' Shimon b. Yochai: Part VII

Continued from Intro, I, II, III, IV, V, VI

So they emerged. Seeing a man ploughing and sowing, they exclaimed, 'They forsake life eternal and engage in life temporal!' Whatever they cast their eyes upon was immediately burnt up.

Thereupon a Heavenly Echo came forth and cried out, 'Have ye emerged to destroy My world: Return to your cave!' So they returned and dwelt there twelve months, saying, 'The punishment of the wicked in Gehenna is [limited to] twelve months.'
Though the world may be ready for R’ Shimon, he’s not yet ready for the world. R’ Shimon’s critique of Rome led him to his cave and his state of disconnect. Upon emerging from the cave, R’ Shimon seems to have broadened his critique to include the mundane acts of planting and plowing, activities which are rooted in humanity itself ever since Adam’s fall. Indeed, R’ Shimon’s problem, it turn out, is not with Rome per se, but with the imperfect state of humanity in general. Rome is not evil; Rome is human.

For R’ Shimon, who has achieved direct union with God and Torah (without the medium of ‘clothing’, much like pre-fall Adam and Eve), the world has lost its independent value. What can the temporal mean in relation to the Eternal? Ironically, R’ Shimon himself did engage in ‘temporal life’, as prayer is sometimes called (cf. BT Brachot 48b), and even prayer, though it’s not planting or plowing, acknowledges the distance between man and his Creator. From his words, it is clear that he assumes that his own vision is absolute, identical with God’s vision of the world. In this, R’ Shimon has not changed from the beginning of the story.

Here, for the first time, we encounter the effects of R’ Shimon’s ‘vision’, a theme which will recur. R’ Shimon’s worldview annihilates everything specifically because he has confused his view with God’s view. Everywhere he looks, he destroys. He insists that his own vision apply to all. Whereas Moshe goes to bat for his generation, R’ Shimon, like Eliyahu before him, and like the exiles in Atlas Shrugged, is willing to let the world go to hell.

In response, God reaffirms His ownership of the world, suggesting that R’ Shimon’s rejection of man is really a rejection of God Himself. Finally, the mask is torn off of R' Shimon's worldview; dismissal of humanity denies the image of God which humanity embodies. In R' Shimon's world, there's no room for anything less than perfection. God's world, however, is much more tolerant of human failure and frailty.

In order to rejoin the human order, R’ Shimon has a final lesson to learn; he must go through hell. Perhaps he’s in a reverse-hell: whereas purgatory, as commonly understood, is a process by which impurities are removed from the spiritual soul, here R’ Shimon must re-integrate with the impure. The cave becomes a Bizzaro-Hell where the pure and impure are forced back together. Alternatively, perhaps it allows him to understand that anything can be refined, given enough time. It is possible to educate and to refine. Purgatory itself takes some time. Evolution, not revolution, can lead man toward perfection. Or perhaps (and these alternatives are not mutually exclusive) R’ Shimon indeed must go through hell for his sin of confusing his own voice with God’s voice, or for being unable to acknowledge that God’s voice, like sparks flying from an anvil, is refracted through a multiplicity of human minds, of which R’ Shimon’s is but one.
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