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CAN YOU VIOLATE A MITZVAH?

Thursday, 19 May, 2022 - 7:35 pm

The Soviet census taker comes to the Goldman house.
“Does Louis Goldman live here?” he asks.
“No,” replies Goldman.
“Well, then, what is your name?”
“Louis Goldman.”
“Wait a minute–didn’t you just tell me that Goldman doesn’t live here?”
“Aha,” says Goldman. “You call this living?”
It is certainly a strange phenomenon. There is no other sage in the history of Judaism that has all the Jewish people celebrating on the day that he passed away. Not Moses, not Abraham, not Aaron, Joshua, King David, or Elijah. None of them. With one exception: Reb Shimon ben Yochai. His yartzeit, Lag Baomer, has become one of the great days of joy, dancing, and celebration. Jews build bonfire, march in parades, go out to fields and parks, pray, study, sing, and unite in Jewish pride and unity.
Reb Shimon is certainly a tremendous figure in Jewish life. One of the greatest sages of his day, a prime student of Reb Akiva, and author of the Zohar, was a spiritual giant. There is not a chapter in the entire Talmud that doesn't mention his name, making him the most quoted Rabbi in Mishna and Talmud. But why is it his yartzeit is marked in such a unique and universal way?
The story of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai is recorded in the Talmud: Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yossi and Rabbi Shimon were sitting, and Yehuda, son of converts, sat beside them. Rabbi Yehuda opened and said: How pleasant are the actions of this nation, the Romans, as they established marketplaces, established bridges, and established bathhouses. Rabbi Yossi was silent. Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai responded and said: Everything that they established, they established only for their own benefits. They established marketplaces, to place prostitutes in them; bathhouses, to pamper themselves; and bridges, to collect taxes from all who pass over them. Yehuda, son of converts, went and related their statements, and those statements continued to spread until they were heard by the monarchy. They ruled and said: Yehuda, who elevated the Roman regime, shall be elevated and appointed as head of the Sages, the head of the speakers in every place. Yossi, who remained silent, shall be exiled from his home in Judea as punishment, and sent to the city of Tzippori in the Galilee. And Shimon, who denounced the government, shall be killed.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son, Rabbi Elazar, went and hid in a cave. A miracle occurred and a carob tree was created for them as well as a spring of water. They would remove their clothes and sit covered in sand up to their necks. They would study Torah all day in that manner. At the time of prayer, they would dress, cover themselves, and pray, and they would again remove their clothes afterward so that they would not become tattered. They sat in the cave for twelve years...
But is there a deeper theme behind this debate? As it turns out, the debater on Rome fascinatingly reflects a debate between Reb Yehuda and Reb Shimon in many aspects of Jewish law. We will present three examples.
There is a famous Talmudic dispute between Rabbi Yeudah and Rabbi Shimon regarding work on Shabbat.
There are thirty-nine categories of labor, that are forbidden on Shabbat, embracing practically every creative and constructive act of man. However, here is the question, what happens if I actively engage in an act that may produce labor on Shabbat unintentionally?
A case in point: The first of the thirty-nine is “plowing”, a category that includes all forms of digging and landscaping. Here is the question, I’m I permitted to drag a chair across my lawn on Shabbat, thereby perhaps cutting a groove in the earth? Even if I do indeed cut a groove, that was not my intention; my intention was merely to put a chair on my porch!
Is it permissible for me to schlep this chair even if I know that possibly I will be “landscaping” my lawn? This is the point of contention between Rabbi Yeudah and Rabbi Shimon. According to Rabbi Judah, such a deed falls under the category of “forbidden.” Rabbi Shimon, however, is of the opinion that a person may go ahead and drag that chair, even if he knows that his doing so may (or may not) carve a groove in the earth.
The same question would be if I am talking a walk on Shabbat over the grass, and I may unintentionally uproot grass from the ground which is forbidden on Shabbat. Can I take a walk on the grass, or not? Reb Shimon says yes; Reb Yehudah says no.
What’s the logic? Reb Yehudah sees the practical action as the predominant issue. If I pull the chair and make a furrow in the ground, who cares if I did not want to do it, but I did it! So, it is forbidden. Where Reb Shimon focuses more on the internal conscious intent of the person’s mind. All I want is a chair, not a hole in the ground, so I may pull the chair over the lawn, or walk over the grass.
In other words, for Reb Shimon, even if I make a furrow with that chair, it is not considered work on Shabbat, for there was no intent whatsoever; this act of labor is a “shell” without an internal substance. There is no conscious mind behind it. Where Reb Yehudah says, a “shell” of work is also work. Yes, I had in mind only to carry my chair, but my hands ultimately contributed to the landscaping of the property.
So now we can appreciate their argument about Rome. For Reb Yehuda, what matters is the actions. The Romans “made streets, built bridges, they have erected baths." For Reb Shimon, what matters is the intent, the state of consciousness beneath the actions. “All that they made they made for themselves; Self-aggrandizement, narcissism, personal gain, and moral depravity.
Reb Shimon is the one who suggests that one can do forbidden act on Shabbat if it without any intent. Because wherever the internal does not connect to the external according to Reb Shimon it's not the real deal. If so, says Reb Shimon, I can exempt the whole world from judgement. Because I can testify that whenever a Jew engages in sin, it is an external, hollow, act; his or her inner soul is not present in the transgression. It is “shell” of a sin, not a real sin.
Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam, was a survivor. His father was killed. His wife was killed. Two of his children were killed. And now he was in the US, having been formally appointed as Bobover Rebbe. He settled in the West Side of Manhattan.
The West Side shtibel drew many survivors, among them a new arrival who was blessed with a beautiful voice. He was honored to serve as the cantor, and when he prayed, he somehow seemed able to rise above the loss and devastation he’d suffered.
He came for a few weeks, but one Shabbat, the cantor wasn’t there. The Rabbi sent his son to go find him and minutes later, the son returned with a disturbing report. He’d seen the cantor sitting on a bench in the nearby park. Smoking on Shabbat.
The Rabbi didn’t hesitate. “It’s not him smoking. It’s the Germans. Go call him and tell him we’re waiting for him.”
The son went out again and came back with the reluctant cantor, who took his place as cantor.
He came every Shabbat for several months, then disappeared, having succeeded in finding a bit of stability… a job, a wife, a second chance.
The years passed. Bobov moved and the Rabbi’s own family grew along with his community. On a winter night in 1990, the Rabbi was presiding over a massive simchah, the wedding of a granddaughter. The synagogue on 48th Street, in Brooklyn was packed, the bleachers a throbbing mass of joy.
Not with words, for no words could tell the story, but when the Bobover Rabbi danced — arms extended, white-stockinged feet rising and falling, face luminous and grateful and filled with faith — everyone danced along. He was celebrating the miracle of survival and growth.
The assistants to the Rabbi allowed an elderly man to approach, an unfamiliar man who said he had an important message for the Bobover Rebbe.
“I am the cantor,” he leaned in close and introduced himself, “the cantor from the shtibel on the West Side. I live a full Jewish life; I have over a hundred grandchildren and they are all shomrei Torah u’mitzvot.”
The Bobover Rebbe called over his son, who was privy to the smoking story back in the 50s. He says to his son: “You see I was correct?! He was not smoking; the Nazis were smoking.”
This is what Reb Shimon is teaching us. No Jew is violating Shabbat with a full heart. Either he does not know better, or he is angry, he is traumatized by being Jewish or by Judaism. This poor Jew watched his loved ones perish. It is the Nazis who caused him to do what he was doing wrong.
And when we can always see that, see the goodness, the infinite light, it changes everything.
Hence, Reb Shimon is the author of Zohar, the book of light—illuminating the inner light of the world, of G-d, of the Torah, of the Jewish people and of each Jew.
Reb Shimon cast light on the internal Divinity of the world and of each person. He taught us to see the deep hidden greatness of every particle and wave of creation and of every soul. As we saw above in Jewish law, it is the “hod,” the internal that always defines something. It is why he is the one that can reveal the Zohar, the secrets of the world.
Reb Shimon is the one sage who saw in each Jew that despite their externalities and their observance level is essentially a prince of G-d, a Divine child.
 
Shabbat Shalom Happy Lag Bomer,
 
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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