Before the Cave
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was a student of Rabbi Akiva, who was the spiritual leader of the Bar Kochba Revolt against Rome in 135 CE, which began in glory and ended in tragedy. His teacher was one of the four great Sages who entered the “Pardes,” the “Orchard” (not to be confused with the OU’s Pardes Program); specifically, who probed the depths of Kabbalah, and came out mentally and spiritually whole. Clearly, Rabbi Akiva was the recipient of a living tradition which he passed on orally to his beloved student, Rabbi Shimon.
As a student of the spiritual leader of the revolt, bar Yochai was pursued relentlessly by the Romans. He and his son, Rabbi Elazar ben Shimon, took refuge in a cave, where they remained for thirteen years.
In the Cave
During those years, Rabbi Shimon studied Torah with his son, the Revealed Torah and the Hidden, or Secret, Torah, the “Torat HaSod,” also known as “Kabbalah,” and translated, or mistranslated as “Jewish Mysticism.”
Rabbi Shimon wrote down the latter material, for the first time, in a book called the “Zohar,” meaning “Splendor” or “Radiance.” This mystical tradition, kept alive by the RAMBAN, in his Commentary to the Bible, and others, resurfaced with a vengeance in the sixteenth century, and became the splendor and the glory of the “Ari” (the “Lion”), Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, and his followers in “Tzefat,” or Safed, Palestine. It also became the basis of the unique spirituality of Chassidut, founded in the eighteenth century, by Yisrael ben Eliezer, the “Baal Shem Tov,” in Eastern Europe.
The first time Rabbi Shimon came out of the cave, he was completely “out of tune” with the people of his generation. He observed Jews farming the land, and engaged in other normal pursuits, and made known his disapproval, “How can people engage themselves in matters of this world and neglect matters of the next world?”
Whereupon a Heavenly Voice was heard, which said “Bar Yochai, go back to the cave! You are no longer fit for the company of other human beings.”
Rabbi Shimon went back to the cave, reoriented his perspective to some extent, and emerged again. This time, he was able to interact with the people of his generation, and become a great teacher of Torah, the Revealed and the Hidden.