Legends of the Ari: Truth and faith

This story has many versions, but the basic outline is generally the same.

There once was a rabbi in Tzfat (Safed) who gave a sermon about the loaves of bread in the tabernacle.  A baker was so inspired by this that he went home and baked additional loaves of Shabbat challah and put them in the Aron Kodesh (the cupboard where the Torah scrolls are kept) as a gift to God.

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A poor man who helped clean the synagogue came to sweep after prayers and stood before the Aron Kodesh and prayed to God for help to feed his family for Shabbat.  He opened the Aron Kodesh and found the bread inside.  It was a miracle!

The next morning when the Aron Kodesh was opened at services, the baker saw that the loaves had been taken and he was overjoyed.  God accepted his gift!

This went on week after week for many years.

Finally, the rabbi saw the baker put the loaves in the Aron Kodesh and shouted at him: “Why are you putting bread in there?”  The baker answered, “I’ve been doing this for many years and God accepts my gift every week.”  “You’re an idiot!  Do you think God eats challah?”  The baker was embarrassed, but they decided to hide and see what happened.

The poor man came to clean and then stood before the Aron Kodesh praying.  He opened it and took the loaves.  The rabbi popped out and said, “Aha!  What are you doing?”  The poor man said, “I’m taking the challah that God has provided for me.”  “You’re an idiot!  Do you think God bakes?”

The Ari heard the story and gave his ruling:  The rabbi was in the wrong.  The two men did what they did with pure and loving faith and the rabbi destroyed it.  He asked the two men to continue the tradition – the baker would provide the bread to honor God and the poor man would accept it with gratitude to God.  The rabbi had been ill at the time of his original sermon, but had been given a reprieve because he had inspired such faith in the two men.  Now that he had broken their faith, his illness was returned to him.

Usually this story is told to inspire faith, to suggest divine intervention, and to reveal the wisdom of the Ari.  I’m going to turn that interpretation sideways to link this story with last week’s post.

We need to have facts and objective truths (the rabbi), otherwise “history” becomes story, legend, or myth (the two men’s narratives of weekly miracles).  External recorded facts (the bread was provided by the baker and taken by the poor man) provide the framework to question or confirm our narratives and this eventually brings us to a deeper and more profound understanding (our paths cross for a reason and we should continue to do good even if the reason is human and not divine).  Then we can truly learn from history and will not be doomed to repeat it.

Why bring up the Ari this week?

This week we celebrated Lag B’Omer.  Most Israelis don’t really know the history of the holiday, but what they do know is that one of the traditions is to light bonfires and celebrate into the night.

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Hundreds of thousands of people travel to Mt. Meron near Tzfat to participate in a huge bonfire at the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar.  The Zohar is the primary text for the study of the Kabbalah.  The Ari (the Lion) is the nickname for Rabbi Isaac Luria, one of the greatest Kabbalist scholars of all time.

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