5/02/2006

Rejoining Society: R' Shimon b. Yochai Part XI

Just a few days left until Lag B’Omer, the day upon which I began this series last year. My goal is to finish by then. After this one, there will be only 2 or 3 more installments.

[Continued from Intro, I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX , X]

R. Phinchas b. Ya'ir his son-in-law heard and went out to meet him. He took him into the baths and massaged his flesh. Seeing the clefts in his body, he wept and the tears fell from his eyes, causing him to scream. 'Woe to me that I see you in such a state!' he cried out. 'Happy are you that you see me like this,' he retorted, 'for if you did not see me in such a state you would not find me so learned. For originally, when R. Simeon b. Yohai raised a difficulty, R. Phinehas b. Ya'ir would give him thirteen answers, whereas subsequently when R. Phinehas b. Ya'ir raised a difficulty, R. Simeon b. Yohai would give him twenty-four answers.
R’ Shimon, in his withdrawal from humanity, had lived ascetically, neglecting his body and allowing it to wither. However, in order to reclaim a place in the social order, he must pay closer attention to the physical to prepare it to become a vehicle for the transcendent. In other words, he must live up to the duality (which is really no duality) of Shamor and Zakhor, described earlier. The place that R’ Shimon chooses to renew his focus upon the body is the very bath that he originally criticized for being a place where the body is glorified. No longer reactionary, he can appreciate and participate in this element of the prevailing culture, and, indeed, appropriate it for his own ends.

R’ Pinchas’s tears cause R’ Shimon pain. Earlier, R’ Shimon had related to pain as a form of weakness, stating that to buckle under the pressure of torture was weak-willed and womanly. Now, he is able to feel the pain of others, to empathize. His condition is painless for him; however, since it causes pain to others, he must sensitize himself to how others will perceive his own state. This is part of social life.

The paradox of full withdrawal and full engagement appears again. R’ Pinchas only sees the misfortune of the former. R’ Shimon points out that it was only through this withdrawal that he became able to engage, that he could be ‘found’, that he could articulate himself in a way that would be intelligible to those around him. In this model, the more self-aware and self-sufficient one is, the less threatened he is by a changing world. Adaptability is a function of self-security. The more abstract one’s apprehension of God’s will, the more easily one can apply it to a variety of circumstances. Thus R’ Shimon displays his Talmudic virtuosity.

But it’s not just about finding more solutions to a particular problem. Throughout this narrative, the number twelve has stood for a complete cycle. R’ Pinchas’s knowledge may have been thorough, but R’ Shimon’s surpasses it qualitatively. He no longer asks questions. His knowledge of Torah is not just complete; it’s whole. ‘Time’ and ‘Place’ become mere variables in the Torah’s infinite permutation.

Having experience this paradox whereby full withdrawal has facilitated full engagement, this ‘miracle’ of existing both inside and outside of time, of having both Zakhor and Shamor, he wishes to engage in public works, expressing the most sublime in the most concrete.
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