Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was one of the greatest rabbis of his generation. We know that he was a real person who lived in the second century CE. We know that he really was one of a small handful of people who kept Judaism alive during a period of intense Roman persecution. Given his importance and given his reputation for loving the Jewish people so deeply, legends grew up about him. These legends depicted him as a man who would perform miracles on behalf of the Jewish people. Here is one that shows his wisdom and compassion:
A man and his wife are said to have appeared before Rabbi Shimon seeking a divorce. They had been unable to have a child after ten years of marriage and felt that their marriage violated the law to “be fruitful and multiply.” Rabbi Shimon sensed that the couple really loved each other very much, but he was not able to dissuade them from a divorce. So, he told them that, because their wedding had been a festive occasion, their divorce must be marked the same way. They would have to invite all their friends and family for a celebration with food and drink.
The couple did as Shimon told them, and, in the joy of the feast and merrymaking, both husband and wife remembered how much they loved each other at the beginning of their marriage and fell in love all over again. They resolved never to divorce, even if they could not have children. The story concludes with the statement that, through Rabbi Shimon’s prayer, God granted them a child [Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:4].
During the life of Rabbi Shimon, Israel was under the dominion of the Roman Empire and its Emperor Hadrian. Hadrian was determined to wipe out the Jewish religion. He barred Jews from living in the city of Jerusalem. He outlawed the observance of Shabbat. He banned the study of Torah. Hadrian also issued a decree for the death of Rabbi Shimon.
Determined to keep both himself and Judaism alive, Shimon and his son went into hiding and lived in a cave where, legend says, they were sustained by only three things: the carob that grew on a tree near the entrance of the cave, water that came from a nearby spring, and the study of words of Torah.
According to the legend, after twelve years in the cave, Shimon received a message from heaven telling him that it was safe to come out of hiding. The Emperor had died and the decree for his death had been annulled. When he emerged, though, Shimon saw that the Jewish people had spent the years of persecution engaged only in farming and business, and had neglected the study of Torah. Shimon was saddened and angry to see that the Torah, which he had spent his life trying to keep alive, was now nearly forgotten by the Jewish people. He eyes were filled with such disapproval that his angry glance would miraculously burn people to cinders.
When God saw what Shimon was doing, the legend says, the divine voice called again and ordered him and his son to return to the cave. It seems that the world was ready for Rabbi Shimon at the end of Hadrian’s tyranny, but he was not yet ready for the world. His years of seclusion had allowed him to forget his love of the Jewish people and to forget the humility and acceptance that is required to live in community with others. It was only after an additional year, that Rabbi Shimon came out of the cave to stay [B. Shabbat 33b].
There is a midrash – a lesson in parable form – that is said to have been taught by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai after his years in the cave. The midrash tells the story of passengers on a boat. As the boat pulled away from the dock to begin its voyage, one passenger opened his bag and took out a drill. The other passengers became alarmed as he put the drill bit against the floor under his seat and begin to make a hole in the bottom of the boat. The other passengers, in fear and astonishment, pleaded with him, “Stop! What are you doing?” The man was surprised by their objections. He calmly said, “What business is it of yours? Why should you care? I’m only drilling under my own seat. I have no intention of drilling under yours.” The other passengers frantically told him, “The seat might only be yours, but the water will rise up to drown us all!” [Leviticus Rabbah 4:6]
It’s obvious that, of course, no one could be unaware that a hole drilled under one seat would sink the whole boat. We understand that the story of the man with a drill is a metaphor for something that we don’t always see so readily.
The story teaches that we tend to believe that we have the right to do what we want as long as it does not directly affect others. Often, though, we are unaware of, or ignore, how private actions can have public consequences. Our simplistic approach toward our rights, believing that we can behave as we wish without considering the consequences for others, can lead to terrible error and destruction. The story reminds us that nothing we do is really completely separated from others. Figuratively speaking, we are all in the same boat.
Take, for example, the person who wants to build a factory in a residential community. The person may declare, “I bought this lot. I have a deed of ownership. Why should anyone have the right to tell me what I can and cannot do on my property?” But, we know that communities do have a right, and need to have a right, to restrict what people do with their property when it has a negative impact on others. That is why we have zoning laws. A factory that might be well suited to one part of town, could cause unacceptable noise, pollution, or congestion in another part of the same town.
This concept was familiar to the ancient rabbis. The Talmud includes laws that require leather tanneries – which were smelly and dirty – to be placed on the outskirts of a town. Jewish law takes the concept even further by saying we have no right to remove ourselves or withhold our help when we are able to help people in need. We have no right to keep information from people whose wellbeing depends upon it. We are all in the same boat, and we have obligations to all our fellow passengers.
Now, let us consider why it was that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, of all people, was the one who taught this lesson about the man with the drill on the boat. Remember, it was Rabbi Shimon who emerged from his years of hiding with harsh judgment against those who did not spend their lives studying Torah as he had. It was his angry glance that miraculously turned people to cinders, and it was he who had to re-learn the importance of loving people as they are, not as we wish them to be.
Rabbi Shimon thought that his harsh judgment against those who did not study Torah was a way of honoring the Torah. When he first came out of the cave, he did not realize that such behavior actually desecrates the Torah.
Torah teaches us to see each human being as a reflection of God’s image. We must not isolate ourselves from others or put ourselves on a pedestal above them. We must see each person as our fellow, our friend, and our companion in life’s journey. We must love others and care for them as they wish to be cared for, not always as we wish for them. That is the lesson that Rabbi Shimon required an additional year in the cave to learn, and it is the lesson that he wanted to teach with the story of the man drilling under his seat.
It is a lesson that we especially need to take to heart in today’s world. Consider the ways that we so easily “drill under our own seat” in today’s society.
Global warming is an obvious example. We can convince ourselves that the miles we drive in our cars, the gas or oil we burn to keep our houses warm, and the electricity we use to power our air-conditioners, are nobody’s business but our own. It’s so natural for us to declare, “What business is it of anyone else? Why should anyone care? I’m only spending my own money.” But the truth is that the changes we are experiencing in our climate, the melting glaciers, the rising sea levels, the global food shortages, the spread of disease, and the increase in powerful storms are the result of the choices that each of us makes individually.
We could talk all day about the small things we can each do to prevent climate change, and I encourage you to learn more about them and do them. For now, though, let us notice that we are all drilling small holes under our seats every time we burn fossil fuels in ways that can be prevented.
There are also examples in our Temple community that show how easy it is for us to miss the ways that the personal choices of one person can affect others. My friend Joel Chase, who will be our Torah reader on Yom Kippur morning, tells a story from when he was president of this congregation. There was a family (no longer Temple members) who asked that their Temple dues be pro-rated to the number of services they attended each year. They thought that if they came to only four services a year, they should only pay four fifty-seconds of the standard dues to reflect their actual use of the Temple facilities. That’s another form of drilling under your seat.
Joel also tells a story about a phone call the Temple received from the relative of a Jewish man who was known in the community, but who was not a member of the congregation. The relative called to inform us that the man had passed away. The caller also wished to inquire if the funeral could take place at the Temple. When told that the Temple could only be used for funerals of members, the relative asked how much it would cost to purchase a membership – for his deceased relative.
In both cases, I can assure you that Joel responded politely – a real mensch. He kindly told the first caller that the Temple can only exist if people support it even during the times when they do not personally benefit from it. He expressed his condolences to the second caller, but also said that the Temple needs the support of Jews while they are alive, and throughout their lives, not just when a moment of personal need arises – sadly, such as at a funeral.
If we only think about our own needs – if we say, “What business is it of anyone else’s? I’m only looking after myself” – we are likely to be oblivious to the needs of those around us. We also will fail to see how we will be hurt in the long-run by such behavior. Remember that the man with the drill didn’t realize that he, too, would drown if he drilled under his seat.
So, how do we respond to the person who does not see how his or her actions affect others? I suppose we could yell at such people. We could tell them how selfish they are being. We could try to make them feel badly. That might make us feel good for the moment, but, that too, is just another form of drilling under our own seat. It’s just another way of insisting on doing things our way while ignoring the needs of another person.
Remember that Shimon bar Yochai, who gave us the story of the man who wanted to drill under his seat, was reflecting on his own hurtful past. He was far from a villain. He was actually motivated by love of Torah and love of the Jewish people. But he also was a man who had suffered the pain of persecution and didn’t notice it when he turned that pain against normal, decent people – people who had not endured what he had endured. It took him an extra year of study to realize that when people did things that seemed selfish or unenlightened to him, it was not because they were bad. They just had a different perspective. We can’t all live together if we are not willing to accept and care about people who look at things differently than we do. That was the Torah Rabbi Shimon needed to learn.
So, we don’t yell at the man with the drill on the boat. We don’t wag our finger at the person who wants to build a factory in a residential community. We don’t take a high-and-mighty attitude against the person who turns the thermostat up to 72 degrees. We don’t disgrace the person who wants to support the Temple only when he or she needs it. No.
What do we do instead? We listen to them. We love them. We see them as reflections of ourselves. We all have places in our lives where we need to care for ourselves first. We don’t isolate people or put ourselves above them. We try to see each person as a fellow, a friend, and a companion in life’s journey. We remember that we must love others and care for them as they wish to be cared for. That is how we help people see beyond themselves and connect with others. That is how we keep them, and ourselves, from drilling those holes in the boat.
L’shanah tovah tikateivu. May you be inscribed for a good year.