Global Jewish Reflections | Finding Gratitude and Responsibility in Isolation
In honor of the High Holy Days, Rabbi Alex Braver shares a talmudic story of isolation and offers a contemporary complement — the story of Liudmila Starikovich, who has been unable to leave her home in Belarus for over a decade.
By Rabbi Alex Braver - Associate Rabbi, Congregation Tifereth Israel, Columbus, Ohio | September 23, 2020
Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.
There is a long story from the Talmud about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son, who lived almost 2,000 years ago. Shimon bar Yochai got in trouble for cursing the Roman government and heard the Romans were coming after him. For a while, he hid out in the study hall with his son, and his wife secretly brought him bread and water. But he got worried the Romans would come torture her to give up his location, so he fled.
Here is what happens next:
They went and they 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.
Elijah the Prophet came and stood at the entrance to the cave and said: Who will inform [Shimon] bar Yochai that the emperor died and his decree has been abrogated? They emerged from the cave, and saw people who were plowing and sowing.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: These people abandon eternal life [of Torah study] and engage in temporal life for their own sustenance!
Every place that Rabbi Shimon and his son Rabbi Elazar directed their eyes was immediately burned.
A Divine Voice emerged and said to them: Did you emerge from the cave in order to destroy My world? Return to your cave.
They again went and sat there for twelve months. They said: The judgment of the wicked in Gehenna lasts for twelve months. Surely their sin was atoned in that time.
A Divine Voice emerged and said to them: Emerge from your cave.
Everywhere that Rabbi Elazar would strike, Rabbi Shimon would heal.
Rabbi Shimon said to Rabbi Elazar: My son, you and I suffice for the entire world, [as the two of us are engaged in the proper study of Torah.]
As the sun was setting on Shabbat eve, they saw an elderly man who was holding two bundles of myrtle branches and running at twilight.
They said to him: Why do you have these?
He said to them: In honor of Shabbat. […]
Rabbi Shimon said to his son: See how beloved the mitzvot are to Israel. Their minds were put at ease and they were no longer as upset that people were not engaged in Torah study. (Shabbat 33b)
To summarize the story: These two rabbis hide out in a cave from the Romans for 12 years, and emerge pretty angry when they see everyone just going about their business — enough that, either literally or metaphorically, everywhere they look gets burnt up. God isn’t very happy, and has them spend one more year in the cave.
When they emerge, they still seem pretty upset to find that though they’ve dedicated 13 years to a solitary existence studying Torah and praying in isolation, the rest of the world is just sort of going along and doing its thing. But when they see the old man rushing about trying to honor Shabbat with the beautifully scented myrtle branches, their minds are put at ease.
This story is terse, but densely layered. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel describes this as a story in which the rabbi and his son move “from exasperation and disgust with this world, which resulted in their actually trying to destroy those who were engaged in worldly activities, to a reconciliation with this world.”
This is a story about two men forced to go into isolation for twelve years.
But this year, as we celebrate a holiday season unlike any we’ve ever experienced (I promised myself I wouldn’t use the word “unprecedented”), I’m thinking about this story in a very different way: This is also a story about two men forced to go into isolation for twelve years. That’s a long time. I remember when the pandemic began, we thought we’d be at home for a few weeks — at the time, I read an article online saying it might extend for as long as two months! Then, I read articles about how the pandemic might even last through the whole summer! And now here we are, about six months later with no end in sight.
Who can say that they haven’t been affected by this pandemic in real and challenging ways? And, unlike Rabbi Shimon, we have Zoom, Netflix, grocery delivery, and FaceTime; we’re not living in a cave naked and buried up to our necks with only carobs to eat. Theirs is a story in which two people suffer deep and lasting trauma, and do what they need to do to survive — but in the process, like milk left out from the fridge for too long, they curdle and go sour. They emerge into the world enraged and aflame with a burning anger. Though they’ve been praying and studying Torah non-stop for twelve years, it obviously has not done them a lot of good, because G-d has to open up the heavens and send them a memo that says, “Hey, actually, I — G-d — don’t want you to burn down my entire world, thank you very much.” Only at the end of the story do they discover that they’ve misjudged people — maybe the rest of the world isn’t spending every second of every day studying Torah and doing nothing else, but they have their own ways of honoring God and Shabbat, too.
The question this raises for me is: How do we cultivate a different kavannah, a different intention in our own modern, 5781 version of isolation, so we can emerge not having curdled like these two rabbis?
The answer, I think, comes from another Jew: Liudmila Starikovich. You probably haven’t heard of Liudmila Starikovich. I wouldn’t have heard of her either, probably, if I didn’t happen to be married to someone who works for JDC.
Liudmila lives in Belarus, and medical issues have left her homebound, blind, and bedridden for over ten years. She quite literally has not been able to go outside in a decade. She relies entirely on JDC’s homecare workers — they are her miraculous carob tree and well of spring water. She calls them “the sunshine in my window” and her “eyes, legs, and ears.” Her parents both fought in World War II and taught her Jewish songs and traditions. Now the Jewish community of Minsk is her lifeline.
My husband Alex filmed and interviewed her for JDC a little over a year ago — was welcomed into her small, cramped, and cluttered home, met with her aid workers, spoke with her via a translator, and got to see what Liudmila called her “tiny life.” And at the end of the interview, when she was asked what her message was for people watching this video, she said:
“I want to wish you just one thing, that your visit wasn’t in vain, that people in far-off America listened and saw us, our needs, and responded, and I will personally advocate for this. I don’t need anything. I’m used to this. But people that just ended up in a bad situation, with disabilities like this, help them. Because your help is sorely needed.”
Her request wasn’t for herself. She’d be fine, she said: “I am sometimes sad, but it happens rarely. I just take a deep breath and the problem disappears.”
Somehow, Liudmila has found within herself the strength to live in deep isolation and yet radiate a light and a warmth and a kindness.
Somehow, Liudmila has found within herself the strength to live in deep isolation — deeper isolation than most of us are experiencing right now, maybe even comparable to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son — and yet, somehow, she is able to radiate a light and a warmth and a kindness that feels entirely absent from the way Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son are depicted in the Talmud.
Part of how she does it, perhaps, is her ability to keep her heart open to others. She has such gratitude for the homecare workers who help her cook and clean, and she also keeps her heart open to those in even greater need than she is. She isn’t naive about her life and her challenges, but she also knows there is a whole world out there, containing both people who care for her and people who still need so much love and care.
Many of us have been able to maintain our safety and isolation in relative comfort because of the millions of people working to deliver our packages and groceries, to run hospitals and infrastructure, to keep us healthy and connected. And if we’re not relying on those people, then chances are, we are those people. Though we’ve had our fair share of suffering these past six months, there are plenty, plenty of other people in our city, in our country, in the world, who have been hurt by this more than most of us. These two poles, of gratitude and responsibility, are what can keep us anchored in this difficult time. These High Holy Days, let us come together in prayer to express our gratitude for what we have, and to always remember our responsibility to help those who have it worse off.
It’s this simple yet profound knowledge that fuels Liudmila — and the many other secret Liudmilas scattered throughout the world — wisdom that even the great Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai lacked. As we make our ways through this virtual holiday season, I hope you’ll remember her — and use her example as a way to navigate your own path through this pandemic.
Rabbi Alex Braver is the associate rabbi at Congregation Tifereth Israel in Columbus, Ohio, where he lives with his son Ezra and husband Alex Weisler, a digital content producer at JDC.