Posts Tagged 'Rabbi Akiva'

Love Till the End: Rabbi Akiva and the Shema

In Va’Etchanan, this week’s Torah portion, we read the Shema, the traditional Jewish credo. There we read:

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our Gcd, the Lord is one . You shall love the Lord your Gcd with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. ( Deuteronomy 6:4- 7)

About this Rabbi Eliezer asks, “If it says ‘with all your soul’, why should it also say, ‘with all your might’,  and if it says ‘with all your might’, why should it also say ‘with all your soul’?” (Berchot 61b) The Gemara goes on to ask,  ” Should there be a man who values his life more than his money, for him it says; ‘with all your soul’; and should there be a man who values his money more than his life, for him it says, ‘with all your might’.”  Rabbi Akiva responds claiming that ‘with all your soul’ means that even if Gcd takes away your soul. The rational for the seemingly extra language around the conditions of loving Gcd is to account for every situation a person would experience in life. 

There is no doubt that living in a modern culture the entire construct of belief in, let alone love of, God is challenging. Living in a post- Holocaust generation Rabbi Akiva’s claim seem impossible. How could such a violent Gcd which took away six million Jewish souls  be worthy of our love? It is not much easier to fathom how we could have a loving relationship with a dispassionate God that would allow the Holocaust to happen.

That Gemara it goes on to the tell the harrowing story of Rabbi Akiva’s resistance to the government. Despite their forbidding him to learn and teach Torah he risks his life and persisted. Eventually he was captured by government forces, imprisoned, and was taken to be executed for his crime of teaching Torah. There we read:

When Rabbi Akiva was taken out for execution, it was the hour for the recital of the Shema, and while they combed his flesh with iron combs, he was accepting upon himself the kingship of heaven. His disciples said to him: Our teacher, even to this point? He said to them: All my days I have been troubled by this verse, ‘with all your soul’, [which I interpret,] ‘even if Gcd takes your soul’. I said: When shall I have the opportunity of fulfilling this? Now that I have the opportunity shall I not fulfill it? He prolonged the word “ehad- one “until he expired while saying it.(Berchot 61b) 

This is a powerful story of self-sacrifice of a religious person. It is easy to understand how this story would give strength to our people throughout all of the generations facing the anti-Semitic murders of history. So while we might have our theological challenges today, this story always stands as a national mandate. We carry the memory of millions who like Rabbi Akiva went to their deaths saying the words of the Shema. And even in that moment I want to cherish how Rabbi Akiva lived more than how he died. Beyond being a person of faith he was a devoted teacher striving to teach his students until the bitter end. In a beautiful way this act of altruism of sharing his wisdom was born out of a life filled with grit and curiosity. Rabbi Akiva was troubled  his whole life trying to understand the meaning of the Shema. Even at this moment of pain so close to the end he was striving to understand and make meaning.

More than his death, Rabbi Akiva’s life forces me to the ask some questions.  When faced with such hatred would I have the fortitude to respond with love? When faced with the end would I still be as open to growing and learning? Even if I could figure this out would I have the presence of mind to share my thoughts? What will be my lifelong “trouble”?  If I answer all of these questions will I truly know what it means to love?

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7 Years of Emunah: Reflections on Faith and Fidelity

While her secular birthday was on September 2nd, Emunah’s Hebrew birthday is today. It is crazy to realize that today she is 7 years old. It is also crazy for me to pause to recognize that I have been writing this blog for 7 years. This blog started with her birth and I has grown along with her for the years. Every year around this time I reflect on Emunah, the name, person, and concept. I feel blessed to have them Emunah in my life.

As I have quoted before Martin Buber writes:

This ‘existential’ characteristic of Emunah is not sufficiently expressed in the translation ‘faith’, although the verb often does mean to believe (to believe someone, to believe a thing). It must further be noticed that the conception includes the two aspects of a reciprocity of permanence: the active, ‘fidelity’, and the receptive, ’trust’. If we wish to do justice to the intention of the spirit of the language which is so expressed, then we ought not to understand ’trust’ merely in a psychical sense, as we do not with ’fidelity’. The soul is as fundamentally concerned in the one as in the other, but is decisive for both that the disposition of the soul should become an attitude of life. Both, fidelity and trust, exist in the actual realm of relationship between two persons. Only in the full actuality of such a relationship can one be both loyal and trusting. (Two Types of Faith 28-29)

This year I take pause to thing about what it might mean to falter in one’s Emunah. The paradigm of this in the Talmud is the life of Elisha ben Abuyah a rabbi born in Jerusalem sometime before 70 CE who adopted a worldview considered heretical by his community. So why did he lose his Emunah? We learn in the Talmud:

‘How did this happen to him? He [Elisha] once saw a man climb to the top of a palm-tree on the Sabbath, take the mother-bird with the young, and descend in safety. At the termination of the Sabbath he saw a man climb to the top of a palm-tree and take the young but let the mother bird go free, and as he descended a snake bit him and he died. Elisha exclaimed, ‘It is written, “Send away the mother bird, but the young you may take for yourself; that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days (Deuteronomy 22:7).” Where is the well-being of this man, and where is the prolonging of his days!’ He was unaware how Rabbi Akiva explained it, ‘That it may be well with you in the World [to Come] which is wholly good,’ And that you may prolong your days’ in the world which is unending. ( Hagigah 15b)

The Talmud depicts that Elisha lost his faith when he saw injustice in the world. As we see in Ki Tetzei, this week’s Torah portion, there is supposed to be a reward of life for sending away the mother bird before taking her eggs. In comparison Rabbi Akiva kept his faith because of his belief in a world to come where the perceived God’s injustice would be made right. In either of their cases it is about having or not having faith or belief. What about Buber’s idea of having fidelity and relationship?

It is said, “Mr Goldfarb goes to synagogue to be in relationship with God. I go to synagogue to be in relationship with Mr. Goldfarb”. It is interesting the Talmud does not say that Elisa did not believe Rabbi Akiva, but that he was unaware of his teaching. Is the assumption that if he was aware Elisha would have believed Rabbi Akiva? Maybe if Elisha was aware of Rabbi Akiva’s teaching he would have known that the system works for someone in his community and he would have stayed in relationship with Rabbi Akiva and his community.

Seven years later while Emunah my daughter might be a struggle times, my relationship with her is steadfast and unshakable, even if my relationship with faith is often a still struggle. Regardless I am still in dynamic relationship with my Emunah and look forward its development for many years to come.

 

 

Too Soon

In the Gemara we read:

Rabbis  Gamliel, Elazar ben Azariah, Yehoshua, and Akiva were once walking along the road when they heard a great cry of joy coming from the Roman camp 120 miles away. They all cried and Rabbi Akiva laughed. They asked him, “Why are you laughing?” Rabbi Akiva responded, “And you, why are you crying?” The answered saying, “These heathens who bow down to idols, they sit safely and comfortably, and as for us, the house of God is burnt; should we not cry?” Rabbi Akiva said, “For that reason I am laughing. If for those that go against God’s will it is so, how much more so for those that abide by God’s will.”

On another occasion they went up to Jerusalem. When they got to Mount Scopus they tore their clothes and when they got to Mount Moriah, they saw a fox coming out of the Holy of Holies. They all cried, and Rabbi Akiva laughed. They asked him, “Why are you laughing?” He responded, “Why are you crying?” They said, “Foxes are now walking in the place about which it says, ‘the stranger that comes close shall die’ (Numbers 1:51), shall we not cry?” “For that reason I am laughing,” he ( Rabbi Akiva) said. “There is a verse that states, ‘I brought faithful witnesses, Uriah the Cohen, and Zechariah ben Berachiyah’ (Yeshayahu 8:2). What is the connection between Uriah and Zechariah? Uriah lived during the first Temple and Zechariah during the second, but the verse implies that the prophecy of Zechariah is dependent on the prophecy of Uriah. Uriah says, ‘Because of you, Zion will be plowed over like a field’ (Michah 3:12). Zechariah says, ‘Once again old men and women will sit in the streets of Jerusalem’ (Zechariah 8:4). Until the prophecy of Uriah was fulfilled, I was worried that the prophecy of Zechariah will never happen. Now that the prophecy of Uriah has been fulfilled it is certain that the prophecy of Zechariah will surely be.” They said to him, “Akiva, you have comforted us, Akiva, you have comforted us” (Makkot 24a-24b).

Quoted in the name of Carol Burnett, Steve Allen, Lenny Bruce, and Woody Allen, we all know that , “comedy is tragedy plus time”. Rabbi Akiva had the vision to see the comedy of the tragedy before his peers. You can almost hear Rabbis  Gamliel, Elazar ben Azariah, and Yehoshua saying, ” Too Soon”.

This is Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat preceding Tisha B’Av during which we will have the vision of our future destruction. We should all be blessed to have a Rabbi Akiva in our lives. He had a capacity to foresee a time in the future when we will be able to look back at the worst tragedy and laugh. Rabbi Akiva teaches us that laughing does not make it light and surely is not about forgetting. Life is too short. I enjoy laughing over crying any day.

– Have a meaningful Fast

Model Lesson

According to Jewish Law it is the practice to refrain from getting married between Passover and Shavuot – until Lag B’Omer (Shulchan Aruch 493:1). Lag B’Omer celebrates the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, a verbal counting of each of the 49 days from Passover till Shavuot (Leviticus 23:15-16). It is recorded that this practice serves as a memorial for the students of Rabbi Akiva,  Tanna of the middle of the 2nd  century, who perished during this period of time. Their deaths came to an end (or at least a break) on Lag B’Omer. But, 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)

It seems strange that Rabbi Akiva’s students died because they did “not treat each other with respect”. Rabbi Akiva taught that “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) is the great underlying principle in the entire Torah (Torat Kehonim 4:12 and Talmud Yerushalmi, Nedarim 9:4).It would be surprising that even just one student of this great Tanna did not learn such a basic lesson. What is the additional significance of the quantity of students who died?

It might be helpful to learn some more about who Rabbi Akiva was as a teacher. Despite his humble beginnings as a shepherd, Rabbi Akiva 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). There is no doubt that Rabbi Akiva loved his wife Rachel dearly. He gave his wife credit for all of the Torah they learned during his time away from her. When his students first met his wife he told them explicitly that they were all indebted to his wife. And here is the issue. While living apart from his wife for all of those years Rabbi Akiva did not show his students the daily habits of respect. How were his students to learn how to treat each other with respect if Rabbi Akiva did not model this for them?

On Lag B’Omer we should take a moment and try to learn the lesson that evaded Rabbi Akiva’s students. How should we treat each other with respect? It is clearly not enough to just talk about it. If we want to teach respect we need to model it.

It is in light of this that we see the real power of Jewish camp as an educational institution. As the adage goes, “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand.” In school we are told a lot of things, but in camp the staff members model the most important lessons. And on the highest level we are all asked to get involved in creating the community.

– As seem on the Canteen


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