As we are about to celebrate Simchat Torah—a holiday defined by its communal gatherings, and the critical importance of physical proximity and traditions like dancing with the Torah—I find myself thinking of the Talmudic story of Shimon bar Yochai and his son, two rabbis who hid in a cave for 12 years to escape Roman persecution.
Surviving on a miraculous carob tree and spring of water, the men studied Torah all day, pausing only for prayer. When they finally emerged from their isolation, they saw farmers plowing their fields—and were so enraged that everything they laid their eyes on was “immediately burned up,” the Talmud says. The rabbis couldn’t understand how their neighbors could engage in such seemingly trivial pursuits. Didn’t they know there was Torah to study? God eventually intervenes to stop them and sends them back into the cave.
I’ve long been fascinated by this story, but this year, I find newfound relevance in this classic text.
At its core, this is a tale of two men forced into isolation for 12 years. When COVID-19 began, I remember thinking that we’d be at home for a few weeks and was stunned to read an article that suggested that might extend that as long as … two months. Now here we are, seven months into the pandemic with no end in sight.
Luckily, we don’t live in a cave with only carobs to eat. Unlike Shimon bar Yochai and his son, we have Zoom, Netflix, Instacart and FaceTime. Theirs is a story in which two people suffer trauma and do what they need to do to survive—but in the process, like milk left out too long, they curdle. They emerge into the world aflame with a burning anger.
Theirs is a cautionary tale, not a “how to” guide. So how can we, in our own modern version of isolation, cultivate a different kavanah? How can we live with intentionality and avoid souring on the world?
The answer, I think, comes from another Jew, Liudmila Starikovich. You probably aren’t familiar with her, and that’s OK. I wouldn’t have heard of her either if I wasn’t married to a video producer at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the global Jewish humanitarian organization that cares for more than 80,000 elderly Jews like Liudmila across the former Soviet Union.
Liudmila lives in Belarus and hasn’t left her home in a decade. Medical issues have left her blind, bedridden and entirely dependent on JDC’s home-care 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.” Liudmila’s parents taught her Jewish songs and traditions as a child, and now the Jewish community of Minsk is her lifeline.
My husband filmed and interviewed Liudmila last year. He was welcomed into her cramped and cluttered home, and got to see what she calls her “tiny life.”
At the end of the interview, 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 and our needs and
responded. 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. “I am sometimes sad, but it happens rarely,” she said. “I just take a deep breath, and the problem disappears.”
Liudmila has found the strength to live in deep isolation—a separation from the outside world far more intense than most of us are experiencing right now—and yet she is somehow able to radiate a kindness entirely absent in the responses of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son.
I think her secret lies in how she keeps her heart open. She isn’t naive about her life and its challenges, but she also recognizes that she’s just one part of a big world that contains both the people who care for her and others who still need so much love and care.
It’s this simple yet profound knowledge that fuels Liudmila Starikovich and the many other secret sages scattered throughout the world: Let us be grateful for what we have, and let us remember our responsibility to help those in need.
These two poles—of gratitude and responsibility—can keep us anchored in this difficult time. It is wisdom that even the great Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai lacked, and as we continue to navigate this pandemic, I hope you’ll remember it … and Liudmila.
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.