One Eye Laughing
Yesterday was the thirty-third day [לג lag] of the period between Passover and Shavuot known as the omer. It marks the death day of one of the great rabbinic sages, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. In mystical lore he is the author of the Zohar and the father of Jewish mysticism. On the day he was to die, he proclaimed that, ‘this day is for me,’ and before he died he gave over many secret teachings. He called the day, yom hilula, a day of celebration, of the light that he could give over. Across the hillsides bonfires are lit to honor his light.
He lived at a time when the Romans ruled Palestine, and he was vocal in his critiques of their political oppressiveness. Tension grew and the Romans sought his head, and he was forced into hiding with his son. They took hermits lives, alone together in a cave. The story goes, that in order to insure the longevity of their clothing they’d only wear them for prayer and Shabbat. The rest of the time, they’d bury themselves in holes in the dirt, and spend the entirety of their days studying the Torah. A carob tree sprung up to provide them nourishment, and a stream flowed from the depths of the cavern.
After twelve years in the cave, they heard a voice that told them it was time to go out, the Roman king had died. They left the cave and saw the people engaged in their work, farming, shepherding, playing. Rabbi Shimon was angered by their apparent disregard for devotion, and everything he set his eyes on was set ablaze. The voice told him to get back to the cave. After another twelve months they came out again, without eyes on fire.
The story is a lesson in judgment. As one devotes more and more time to a spiritual path or any conscious work, there will rise an inclination to condemn the apparent laziness of the uninitiated. God has no grace for such judgment. The task of the work is selfish in this sense; you are only responsible for your own being. But when we change the conditions of the field we inhabit, we are bound to affect all those who reside in our proximity. When he offered them fire they could only be destroyed, but when he gave them light, they have set it in its place, and it continues to burn.
Our teacher, Rabbi James Stone Goodman, often cites a source; they say of Bar Yochai that you might see him, one eye laughing, one eye crying. This is the pinnacle of being, when you can reside in all the apparent dualities at once, sorrow and joy, holy and mundane, life and death, one eye laughing one eye crying.
Rabbi Zach Fredman