A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Day After the End of the World

I'm sure we all heard that the world was supposed to end yesterday. The man who predicted it was "flabbergasted" that it didn't happen.

While I was not surprised to wake up this morning, there was an interesting resonance that I haven't seen written about.

Saturday night began Lag B'Omer, the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer ('Lag' comes from the Hebrew alphabetic equivalent of 33, the letter lamed plus the letter gimel) . We are commanded in the Torah to count the days between Pesach and Shavuot. Over time this became a period of mourning, associated with the death of thousands of Rabbi Akiva's students. The 33rd day of the Omer is seen as a break in the period of mourning.

The tradition took on new forms over time and the 33rd day of the Omer became recognized as the day of the death of Shimon bar Yochai, who is, according to tradition, the author of the Zohar.

There is a talmudic story about Shimon bar Yochai that connects (at least in my mind) to the 'end of the world' anxieties. Pursued by the Romans, he fled to a cave where he was miraculously sustained by a carob tree and lived for many years. He studied Torah continuously there and when he emerged, he was so immersed in Torah learning, and so cut off from the real world, that he was contemptuous of the lives of those he encountered - they were engrossed in banal physical tasks such as planting, rather than studying Torah. Such was his indignation that everything he gazed upon was destroyed.

This kind of angry, world-destroying piety was not looked upon kindly by God, who sent him back to the cave so God's world would not be destroyed by Shimon bar Yochai's pious gaze. When the sage re-emerged, he did so at greater peace with the world, and could live in it, having accepted its imperfections.

We remembered this Sage's death just hours after the world was supposed to have been destroyed.

Apocalyptic warnings - and fantasies - are a way to resolve the gap between the perfection of Divine reality and the ugliness of the messy world. They imagine a kind of awful perfection in which the world is completely destroyed so that true perfection can begin.

There is a resonance here with Shimon bar Yochai's initial attitude toward the world. Steeped in the perfection of Torah and Sagely meditation, he cannot face the real world in its spiritual imperfection.

But God's lesson to him is that Shimon must not permit his longing for deeper spiritual connection lead to contempt for the physical world, nor to a desire for its destruction. Thus, the Sage is sent back to the cave.

Retreat to the world of Torah, of prayer, and our desire for the magnificent quiet of deeper spiritual development, must not lead us to bitterness. True Torah is in the world, engaged with the world, with all of its brokenness. That is, in fact, the essence of Torah.

This powerful story has real contemporary relevance and import. While it is true that not so many people are apocalyptics, there is a parallel spiritual development in our culture to which many of us fall victim.

So many people - whether they consider themselves spiritual seekers or not - seek solace from the messy and painful world outside. The search for meaning in our culture is so often expressed in an utterly internal way. We seek "inner peace," we try to "get away from it all," we try to "find out who I really am," or to "get at peace with" ourselves. None of these things is bad, and in fact, each has a place in the spiritual search. But when the interiorization of the spiritual search ends where it begins - within the individual - we become like Shimon bar Yochai, stuck in the cave, looking for perfection, growing ever distant from God's world.

So, look: the world is still here, thank God. Go to it.


  1. איזה יפה
    The city was all aglow with bonfires last night, from the old city through Rehavia to the German Colony. A break from mourning indeed.
    That Lag B'omer happened at the moment of havdallah, the הבדיל was readily apparent. Looking forward to seeing you this week. Rachael

  2. Ah, to be in Israel for 33 Omer. Beautiful.

    Looking forward to seeing you, as well. I will not be here on Shabbes - at Limmud CO. Hope we don't miss each other.

    I very much want to hear about your year in Yerushalayim.