In parshat Emor, we read of the special privileges and restrictions of the priests. The priests were elevated into an elite level, but along with elite status came exacting standards meant to preserve the perfect holiness of the Temple, and perhaps also to remind the priests that with privilege comes responsibility.
After the destruction of the Temple, the priests cease to be relevant as anything more than a symbolic reminder of how things used to be. Other leaders arose to inspire, provoke, and rebuild the collective Jewish identity. Yesterday (May 3) was Lag BaOmer, the 33rd day of the Omer, which marks the yahrzeit (anniversary of the death) of one of those leaders.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was a mystic, brilliant scholar who lived in the 2nd century CE, a leading student of Rabbi Akiva, and the fourth-most-cited sage in the Mishnah. Legends grew around him, and a millennium later the Zohar – the radiant jewel of Jewish mystical literature – was ascribed to him.
It was said about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai that in his generation, there were no rainbows. The midrash (Genesis Rabbah 35:2) presents a fascinating idea about the purpose of the rainbow. The rainbow is God’s way of letting people know not to worry about ultimate destruction reminiscent of the flood in Noah’s time. The rainbow is a sign of hope, a message of persisting in the face of human hatred and societal failures. But when you have a sage as saintly as Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, there’s simply no need for the rainbow. He himself guaranteed that destruction would not happen in his generation. And so, no rainbow.
I, as a lover of rainbows, insist that the rainbow must have been present in that generation. Perhaps the deeper meaning of this midrash is that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai managed to reach the spiritual stature of becoming in some way like a rainbow. In order to understand how that works, we turn to the 18th century Chassidic sage Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. He writes (in a commentary on Genesis 24:14):
“[The Zohar states that] in the time of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai even small children possessed some special wisdom that enabled them to know what other adults do not know. They were endowed with this superior wisdom as part of the spiritual rays radiating from the saintly personality of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is quoted as an example of the influence exerted on the environment by every righteous person, each one in varying degrees according to her spiritual stature. They are to be perceived as a microcosm of God, Who as the macrocosm, disseminates spiritual influence throughout the universe through God’s very existence.”
Levi Yitzchak suggests that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai radiates divine wisdom. I imagine him with a rainbow-like presence, a prism taking in divine light and refracting it into beautiful colors influenced by his unique character. This is what we all do, when we take in wisdom. When we learn something new, read a powerful poem, discover hidden depths in a friend, delight in growing love, or find resilience in family, we are in some way accessing the divine light embedded in the world. Each of us begins to radiate the wisdom we have attained, colored beautifully by our own quirks and experiences.
When you look around a room, and truly see the beauty and hope of the rainbow in every person’s face, then we will have arrived at a world no longer threatened by destruction, a world that is entirely full of the peaceful glow of Shabbat.