“Is there anything that requires fixing?” he asked. They told him that there’s a place of doubtful contamination (tumah), and Kohanim (priests, who may not traverse a cemetery) must trouble themselves to circumvent it. Said he: Does any man know that there was a presumption of cleanness here? A certain old man replied, Here [R. Yohanan] b. Zakkai cut down lupines of terumah. So he did likewise. Wherever it (the ground) was hard he declared it clean; wherever it was loose, he marked it off.Generations that experienced a severe rupture with the past exhibit tendencies to preserve whatever possible of that past. No attempt is made to distinguish between essential and accidental elements of the bygone era. Thus, the entire past remains an undifferentiated amalgam of the ‘living’ and the ‘dead’. It becomes an unmarked graveyard.
An unmarked graveyard is the worst kind of obstacle: it is a safeik, a case of doubt. Treating is all as ‘dead’, as the people were doing, means that one cannot navigate a ‘path’ – a halakha – a way through – this past, and will be forced to construct their path through foreign pastures. Ironically, the more the entire past is treated as sacred, the less viable and relevant it is in the present. Equally dangerous is ignorance of the past, to trample it, to relegate it to a bygone world that cannot provide any meaning for the ‘modern’ generation. Nothing is sacred.
In order for the Kohanim – the group that stands between man and God, be it the Sons of Aharon or the entire Jewish people as a ‘Kingdom of Priests’ – to accomplish their mission, a path must be forged through the whole of what has been transmitted. Doubt must be resolved. Right and wrong, living and dead, essential and accidental, must be differentiated.
R’ Shimon is in position to do just that. He began the story wholly rooted in the past, but then spend years refining and unlocking the underlying, essential, eternal, pure Torah, which he is now ready to apply to the current untenable situation. There are a number of tools at his disposal, which he utilizes to indeed chart a course through the cemetery, signaling what has died and what lives on.
He first turns to memory; is the past wholly shrouded in fog, completely inaccessible, or do we have a tendency to treat it that way? R’ Shimon consults the remnants of the previous generation, those who still remember what it was like, to help him recover the living system. He finds a link back to the generation of R’ Yohanan b. Zakkai. R’ Yohanan was the last leader in the time of destruction, who had to begin a rebuilding and recovery process. He is the immediate predecessor and role model for the task that R’ Shimon now faces.
R’ Yohanan ‘cut down lupines’ in this cemetery, and so R’ Shimon does so, too. The lupine is an interesting vegetable. Raw, it is inedible and bitter. It must be cooked several times, each time removing the outermost layer, until finally the sweet kernel is reached.
Is that not exactly what R’ Shimon is attempting?