Posts Tagged 'Rabbi Akiba'

Full of It

In VaEra, this week’s Torah portion, we read of Moshe’s back and forth arguing for the Israelites’  freedom with Pharaoh. There we read:

And the Lord said to Moshe: ‘Pharaoh’s heart is stubborn, he refuses to let the people go. Go to Pharaoh in the morning; so, when he goes out to the water; and you shall stand by the river’s brink to meet him; and the rod which was turned to a serpent shall you take in your hand. And you shall say to him: The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has sent me to you, saying: Let My people go, that they may serve Me in the wilderness; and, behold, you have not heeded until now; thus said the Lord: In this you shall know that I am the Lord–behold, I will smite with the rod that is in my hand upon the waters which are in the river, and they shall be turned to blood. And the fish that are in the river shall die, and the river shall become foul; and the Egyptians shall loathe to drink water from the river.’ (Exodus 7:14-18)

The simple meaning is that God is directing Moshe to have a power meeting with Pharaoh in the morning to negotiate their release from slavery.  That would make sense if they were meeting at Starbuck’s, but why is this meeting scheduled to happen at the water? Quoting the Midrash in reference to this Rashi  writes:

When he goes out to the water– to relive himself for Pharaoh would pretend to be a god and would say that he did not need to relieve himself. He would arise early and go out to the Nile and secretly tend to his  needs.  ( Shemot Rabbah 9:8)

In Rashi’s understanding Moshe is challenging Pharaoh’s very claim to power. Pharoah is not a god, rather  just an ordinary man. Moshe knows this because he grew up in Pharoah’s house. Moshe knows that Pharoah’s poop stinks just like everybody else. This is interesting in reference to how the Israelites understood their own standing in reference to smell earlier in the book. There we read:

HaShem look upon you, and judge; because you have made our very scent to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants.(Exodus 5:21)

But more on this in another post. So for now, back to Pharoah doing his business in the water in the early morning. In light of Pharoah’s hardened heart and his resolve not to let the Israelites go, this image depicts Pharaoh as being constipated and not being able to let us go. It is as if Moshe is coming with prunes and Metamucil to encourage Pharaoh’s movement on the issue.

But joking aside, maybe there is even more going on here. Why is this the location that God wants Pharaoh to “know that I am the Lord”? Water is the site of extermination of all of the boys of Moshe’s generation at the hands of the Egyptians. Its seems fitting that the Egyptians will suffer through the plague of the water turning to blood. But water is not such a simple symbol in Moshe’s life. This water is also the site of Moshe’s salvation and the source of his name i.e. drawn from water. Why is this the site of engagement between Moshe and Pharaoh?

This reminds me of one of my favorite Aggadot. In Berachot we learn:

Rabbi Akiba said, ‘Once I went in after Rabbi Yehoshua to a bathroom, and I learned from him three things. I learned that one does not sit east and west but north and south; I learned that one evacuates not standing but sitting; and I learned that it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right’. Said Ben Azzai to him (Rabbi Akiba), ‘Did you dare to take such liberties with your master?’ He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I am required to learn. It has been taught: Ben Azzai said, ‘Once I went in after Rabbi Akiba to a privy, and I learned from him three things. I learned that one does not evacuate east and west but north and south. I also learned that one evacuates sitting and not standing. I also learned it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right’. Rabbi Yehudah said to him, ‘Did you dare to take such liberties with your master? ‘ He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I am required to learn.  ( Berachot 62a)

The most striking thing about this Gemarah is not that Rabbi Akiba learned Torah from Rabbi Yehoshua in the bathroom or even that Ben Azzai learns the same three things from Rabbi Akiba in the bathroom. It seems crazy that Ben Azzai admonished Rabbi Akiba for learning those lessons in that way only to follow Rabbi Akiba into the bathroom to learn the same lessons the same way. Some lessons can be taught in words and others need to be modeled. Needing to see Torah in action with our own eyes presents us with a great model for the best in experiential Jewish education, but that is also a topic for another time. Back to Moshe and Pharoah meeting in the bathroom.

We learn in the Gemara, “It was a matter of Torah, and I am required to learn”. What did  Moshe need to learn from Pharaoh that necessitated following him into the bathroom? I think there could be a number of answers to this question, but one might be that Moshe needed to come to peace the fact that he had nothing to learn from Pharaoh. Moshe is a complex character caught between the house of Pharaoh in which he was raised and his birth nation who are Pharaoh’s slaves. Moshe did just have contempt for the Egyptians, he loved them and they shared a culture. Pharaoh’s heart was already hardened , maybe having Moshe return to the place of his salvation and naming was to help Moshe develop his resolve and commitment to the Israelite nation. Pharaoh might have a great man, but truly great people have nothing to hide. Moshe needed to realize that the Torah was going to be given to his birth nation at Sinai and it was not coming out of Pharaoh no matter how much he pushed. There is a lot of Torah to be learned. We need our teachers to be the right role models. The wrong teachers are just full of it.

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Modeling Respect

The Shulchan Aruch (493:1) reports on the practice of not getting married between Passover and Shavuot – until Lag B’Omer, because during this time the students of Rabbi Akiva perished. Their deaths came to an end (or at least a break) on Lag B’Omer. Why did the students of Rabbi Akiva die? And why would we mourn their death by refraining from getting married?

We can start to answer these questions by looking at the Gemara in Yevamot. There  we learn:

Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbata to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir,  Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: “All of them died between Passover and Shavuot”.  (Yevamot 62b)

Rabbi Akiba’s students died because they did not treat each other with respect. It would be surprising to learn that one student of this great tanna of the middle of the 2nd century did not learn such a basic lesson. What is the additional significance of it being 24,000?

Despite his humble beginnings as a shepherd Rabbi Akiba became a tremendous scholar. And while he had a tremendous effect on Jewish life, he was not without flaws. We learn in the Gemara that during the 24 years in which he accumulated these 24,000 students he did not see his wife once (Ketubot 62b-63a). Rabbi Akiva gave his wife credit for all of the Torah they learned in this time. So while he told his students explicitly that they were all indebted to his wife, living apart from his wife for all of those years Rabbi Akiva did not show his student the daily habits of respect. How were his students to learn how to treat each other with respect if Rabbi Akiba did not model this for them?

Today being Lag B’Omer , we should take a moment and reflect on how we should treat each other with respect and how we might teach this lesson to others. Lately there is a lot of conversation as to what is a legal marriage. Many hide their homophobia and bigotry behind their traditional hetero-normative assumptions of marriage of the religious establishment. While they have every right to marginalize people who do not live by their standards within the context of their religion, in a country that claims a division between church and state this should have no bearings on US law. It is for the very reason that marriage is a sacrament that the state should not get involved in  limiting these rights to heterosexual couples.

It is not despite the fact that I am an Orthodox Rabbi, but because of this fact that I think the government should allow same-sex marriage. How are we any different from the students of Rabbi Akiba? How can we in the religious establishment hope to teach people about respect when we do not model it ourselves. Looking no further than the  horrible divorce rate in this country it is clear that we do not model this respect  in hetero-normative marriage. And we surely do not model this by barring two consensual adults who love each other  from enjoying the civil rights of a heterosexual couple.

As religious people, we should welcome this “challenge” of same-sex marriage as an opportunity to define marital commitment in the 21st century. Getting lost in the form of a wedding completely misses the conversation about the content of a marriage. Who better to guide the conversation about commitment?  It is laughable to outsource the definition of a marriage to the state. We clearly do not want to leave this conversation of commitment in the hands of politicians. We want to be the ones crafting the conversation on what makes a life-long commitment work. And in the end we have to realize that we cannot just preach respect, we need to model it.  So now with Lag B’Omer behind us we can all get married.


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