Posted on | December 28, 2005 | By Yaakov Astor | 10 Comments
There’s a story in the Gemara which I think describes the phenomenon of plateauing in two of our greatest spiritual giants.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son Elazar were forced to live in a cave for 12 years, hiding from the Roman authorities, who had an execution order out for them. After the decree was rescinded they came out of the cave, but whenever they encountered people they “burned them with their eyes” (euphemism for “ayin ra,” according to the commentaries). Their fire for emes prevented them from accepting people as limited human beings, not always filled with the same fire of Torah and avodas Hashem they possessed.
As a result, Hashem told them to go back to the cave rather than destroy His world. When they came out a year later, Rabbi Shimon was able to look at people without “burning them.” His son, Elazar, however, could not.
It’s been pointed out how strange Hashem’s response was. If their problem is too much intensity, too much fire, then why send them back to the cave? It was living in the cave, away from humanity, that gave them that fire to begin with!
However, we see that for Rabbi Shimon, at least, that extra year worked. He was able to temper his fire. He was able to accept people for their limitations.
Rabbi Shimon and his son had plateaued. The extra year in the cave enabled the father, though, to break through to a new level. I think there’s at least two practical lessons we can learn from this.
First, when you feel you’ve plateaued – when you feel mentally and spiritually drained — you may need to intensify your learning, your avodas Hashem. You may think just the opposite. You may think the reason you are stuck is because you’ve been too immersed, too intense, and going back to the Bais Midrash, so to speak (or literally), is the worst thing for you. Not so, according to this. (Consult your Rav for all practical advice, however.)
The second thing we learn, IMO, is that chesed is a means for breaking a cycle of redundancy. Rabbi Shimon’s ability to control his gaze was an expression of chesed, a reflection of his feelings of rachmanus for others and understanding their limitations. As a result, he was able to perform one of the greatest chasadim: sharing his inspired findings with the world (it was in the cave that the Zohar was authored by Rabbi Shimon and his son, according to the Zohar).
In short, if you feel you’ve plateaued look into re-intensifying your learning (even if you feel burned out) and doing chesed.