Monday, April 18, 2011

The Hero of the Pesach Seder

Read the classic of biography of Rabbi Akiva here.

On Shabbos Chol Hamoed Pesach, we read from Shir Hashirim, a metaphor for Hashem’s relationship with Benay Yisrael. The Mishna in Yadaim records a Machlokes about whether Shir Hashirim should be included in the biblical canon. After a heated discussion, it is Rabbi Akiva who comes to the rescue and states

אמר רבי עקיבה, חס ושלום: לא נחלק אדם מישראל בשיר השירים שלא תטמא את הידיים, שאין העולם כולו כדאי ביום שניתנה בו שיר השירים לישראל--שכל הכתובים קודש, ושיר השירים קודש קודשים; ואם נחלקו, לא נחלקו אלא על קוהלת.

I will discuss one aspect of Shir Hashirim which thanks to Rabbi Akiva is the most precious of our 24 Sefrei Tanach this afternoon. It is my belief that Rabbi Akiva is not only the hero of Shir Hashirim but of the entire Chag of Pesach. Where does Rabbi Akiva appear in Pesach? He is found in the seder.

מַעֲשֶׂה בְּרַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר וְרַבִּי יְהוֹשֻעַ וְרַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה וְרַבְּי עֲקִיבָא וְרַבִּי טַרְפוֹן שֶהָיוּ מְסֻבִּין בִּבְנֵי בְרַק, וְהָיוּ מְסַפְּרִים בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם כָּל אוֹתוֹ הַלַּיְלָה עַד שֶׁבָּאוּ תַלְמִידֵיהֶם וְאָמְרוּ לָהֶם: רַבּוֹתֵינוּ, הִגִּיעַ זְמַן קְרִיאַת שְׁמַע שֶׁל שַׁחֲרִית.

It is interesting to note that Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua were both teachers of Rabbi Akiva and yet they went to Rabbi Akiva’s seder in his hometown of Benei Berak to join him. Why did these rabbis come to Rabbi Akiva’s seder?

I believe that the answer can be found by analyzing Rabbi Akiva’s contribution to a different part of the seder. The Mishna in Pesachim 116b, records argument between Rabbi Akiva and Rav Tarfon about the Beracha recited at the end of the Magid service in the Hagadah.

ר"ט אומר אשר גאלנו וגאל את אבותינו ממצרים ולא היה חותם רבי עקיבא אומר כן ה' אלקינו ואלקי אבותינו יגיענו למועדים ולרגלים אחרים הבאים לקראתנו לשלום שמחים בבנין עירך וששים בעבודתך ונאכל שם <מן הפסחים ומן הזבחים> [מן הזבחים ומן הפסחים] כו' עד בא"י גאל ישראל

We follow Rabbi Akiva. Rav Tarfon stops with the past. He recited blessed are you Hashem who redeemed us and redeemed our forefathers from Egypt. Rav Akiva says that the past is not enough. You have to look to the future.

כן ה' אלקינו ואלקי אבותינו יגיענו למועדים ולרגלים אחרים הבאים לקראתנו לשלום שמחים בבנין עירך וששים בעבודתך

Hashem will give us redemptions in the future as well. Rabbi Akiba is living in a post Hurban world where the world is shattered and he is saying Davka now we can’t just look to the past but we have to look to a better future. He says that we have to look to better days. This is the trademark of Rabbi Akiba. He has the vision to see beyond the bleakness of the present to a glorious future.

The Gemara Makkos 24b records 2 stories about Rabbi Akiba that illustrate his eternal optimism. Rabban Gamaliel, R. Eleazar ben Azariah, R. Yehoshua, and R. Akiva were once walking on the road at Puteoli in Italy. They could hear the noise of the crowds in the coliseum in Rome, one hundred and twenty mil away. Rabban Gamaliel, R. Eleazar ben Azariah, R. Yehoshua burst into weeping, but R. Akiva continued to be cheerful. They asked him: Akiva, why are you so cheerful? He replied: Why are you weeping? They: These heathen, who bow down to images and burn incense to idols, live in safety and tranquility, whereas we--whose Temple, the "footstool" of our God, is burned down by fire--are we not to weep? He replied: For that very reason, I am cheerful. If they who offend Him fare thus, how much better by far will fare those who please Him!

Another time, the same sages were coming up to Jerusalem together, and when they reached Mount Scopus they rent their garments. When they got to the Temple Mount and saw a jackal emerging from the Holy of Holies, they began to weep, but R. Akiva laughed. Why, they asked him, are you laughing? He replied: Why are you weeping? They: The place of which Scripture says, "The common man that draws near shall be put to death" (Num. 1:51), is now become the haunt of jackals. Should we not weep? He said to them: For that very reason, I am laughing. For it is written, "And I call reliable witnesses, Uriah the Priest and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah" (Isa. 8:2). Now what connection is there between Uriah and Zechariah? Did not Uriah live during First Temple, while Zechariah [lived and prophesied] during the Second Temple? Still, Scripture links the [later] prophecy of Zechariah with the [earlier] prophecy of Uriah. In the [earlier] prophecy, [in the days] of Uriah, it is written,

יב לָכֵן, בִּגְלַלְכֶם, צִיּוֹן, שָׂדֶה תֵחָרֵשׁ; וִירוּשָׁלִַם עִיִּין תִּהְיֶה, וְהַר הַבַּיִת לְבָמוֹת יָעַר.

"Because of you, Zion shall be plowed as a field, Jerusalem shall become heaps of ruins, and the Temple Mount a shrine in the woods" (Mic. 3:12), and in Zechariah, it is written,

ד כֹּה אָמַר, יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, עֹד יֵשְׁבוּ זְקֵנִים וּזְקֵנוֹת, בִּרְחֹבוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִָם; וְאִישׁ מִשְׁעַנְתּוֹ בְּיָדוֹ, מֵרֹב יָמִים. ה וּרְחֹבוֹת הָעִיר יִמָּלְאוּ, יְלָדִים וִילָדוֹת, מְשַׂחֲקִים, בִּרְחֹבֹתֶיהָ.

"Thus saith the Lord of hosts: There shall yet old men and old women sit in the broad places of Jerusalem" (Zech. 8:4). So long as Uriah's [dire] prophecy had not yet had its fulfillment, I feared that Zechariah's prophecy would not be fulfilled; now that Uriah's prophecy has been fulfilled, it is quite certain that Zechariah's prophecy also is to be fulfilled. They said to him: Akiva, you have comforted us! Akiva, you have comforted us!

This quality is commemorated through the period of Sefiras Haomer that follows Pesach. We all know the custom to mourn during this time for the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva that died. But do you know what Rabbi Akiva did after this dire tragedy when he lost his entire glorious Yeshiva in the Galilee? The Gemara in Yevamot 62b records that he traveled south and found five remaining students to teach. These were R. Meir, R. Judah, R. Jose, R. Simeon and R. Eleazar b. Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. We mourn because of the students that died. Rabbi Akiva continued to teach and it was these five new students who formed the backbone of the Mishna. Without Rabbi Akiva’s optimism and heroism, the Oral Law and all of Halachic Judaism would have died in those bleak days. Because Rabbi Akiva continued to spread Torah, the Torah survived and thrives to this day.

It was for this reason that the 4 rabbis all gathered in Benay Berak to spend the seder with Rabbi Akiva. Where else to see the Geulah of the future at the seder after the destruction of the temple than in Rabbi Akiba’s hometown. You need the optimism of Rabbi Akiba who could take the most difficult situations and see the bright future that awaits.

In the book "Under Strange Skies" Harry Simonhoff, describes his own experience with Rabbi Akiva when he traveled to England visit the ruins of the walls built by the Roman emperor Hadrian who arranged to have Rabbi Akiva killed. Before visiting the walls he had to daven Mincha since he had yarzheit that day. He asked the populace and they led him to the nearest minyan in the great Gateshead Yeshiva. Then he visited the Roman wall of Hadrian. He describes his experience:
"In this English Volozhin, slight young men sit on hard benches, swaying over tomes of the Talmud, the Midrash, the Tosafists. Here is a genuine old-world yeshiva taking root in English soil. I left the school in a taxi - The taxi stopped and the driver said, "Sir, this is the Roman Wall". I got out to inspect the ruins of the wall which Hadrian built between Newcastle and Carlisle. It suddenly occurred to me that this was the Hadrian who crushed Bar Kochba and had Akiba flayed alive for teaching Judaism, which was forbidden by imperial decree. The Romans are gone forever. Hadrian's proud wall is a series of broken mounds. But nearby, the English yeshiva bochurim [students] are keeping alive the ethos of Gamliel and Akiba".
It is this optimism of Rabbi Akiva that makes him the hero of my Pesach seder. The Romans who destroyed our temple and murdered Rabbi Akiva and his many students are long forgotten. Rabbi Akiva, his teachers, and disciples survive. We are living proof of the power of Rabbi Akiva’s optimism.

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