Painting by Yoram Raanan.
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
One of the most familiar stories in the Haggada is that of the Five Sages – Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Tarfon.
“They were telling of the departure from Egypt all night, until their disciples came and said to them: Our masters, the time for the recitation of the morning Shema has arrived.”
On the surface, the account of these sages seems a perfect illustration of the previous statement of the Haggada, which declared that “even if we were all wise… all sages and well learned in the Torah, it would still be our duty to tell the story of the departure from Egypt.
And the more one elaborates upon the story of the departure from Egypt, the more one is to be praised.”
However, in terms of this narrative, there are a number of troubling aspects. First of all, we know from various sources in the Talmud that at least three of the four Sages mentioned – R. Eliezer, R. Yehoshua, and R. Tarfon – were masters and teachers of Rabbi Akiva. And since Rabbi Akiva was from Bnei Brak and the Seder was being held in Bnei Brak, while R. Eliezer was from Lod and R. Yehoshua was from Peki’in, it’s clear that these teachers were spending the Seder night with their students. This is the exact opposite of normal protocol. If anything, students are to visit their teachers on festivals, and not the other way around.
Secondly, R. Eliezer specifically held that festivals should be celebrated in one’s home, without traveling away from one’s family: “And you shall rejoice, you and your household” (Deut. 14:16), as proof that true rejoicing (the essence of a festival) requires one to be together with one’s house and one’s household, and not in a strange place – even with one’s rebbe! If that’s the case, doesn’t R. Eliezer’s presence at R. Akiva’s home for the Seder contradict his own ruling? (B.T.
Succa 27b) The Aruch Hashulhan (Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, 1829-1908) in his commentary on the Haggada called “Leil Shimurim,” suggests that the Seder in Bnei Brak actually took place after the destruction of the Second Temple and most probably during the Hadrianic persecutions. This was one of the most tragic and despairing eras in Jewish history. The Bar Kochba rebellion had proven to be an aborted attempt to recapture sovereignty over Judea; the soul of Israel was crushed as Jewish leaders were being tortured to death, and only a long and bitter exile loomed on the horizon.
And then came the calendar, marking the 15th day of the month of Nisan. How could the Jews possibly celebrate a Passover Seder of freedom in the midst of persecution and terror? During this period of frustrated hopes and smashed expectations, there was no greater personification of faith among the Jewish people than R. Akiva. Everything about him suggested a spirit of incomparable optimism. Despite the fact that he had been the major spiritual inspiration behind the Bar Kochba rebellion, he never surrendered to cynicism or despair. In one amazing incident recorded by the Talmud, Rabban Gamliel, R. Akiva, R. Elazar ben Azaryah, and R.
Yehoshua (three of these four having also been at the Seder in Bnei Brak) were walking on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem when they spotted a fox emerging from the place of the Holy of Holies. Whereas the other figures responded with tears, R. Akiva laughed. And when they asked him to explain the reason for his gaiety, the Sage explained that since the presence of the foxes confirmed the truth of the prophecy of the destruction, the prophecy of the eventual redemption of the land and the nation must also be true (B.T. Makot 24b).
Similarly, the Sages of the Talmud debated the proper conclusion to the Maggid portion of the Passover Haggada. “R.Tarfon said, ‘Blessed art Thou, O God… Who has redeemed us and has redeemed our forebears [past tense] from Egypt’ – and did not seal [the blessing]. R. Akiva continued and concluded R. Tarfon’s blessing: ‘...So shall our God and the God of our forebears bring to us other festivals and celebrations for peace, rejoicing in the rebuilding of Your city and reveling in Your service; and we shall eat there from the paschal lamb and the sacrifices… Blessed art Thou, Who has redeemed Israel.’” (B.T. Pessahim 116b).
Beyond doubt, R. Akiva is the figure who represents total faith in God, and total faith in the future destiny of the Jewish people. His own death, steeped in suffering, serves as one of the most spiritually powerful moments in our history. He was sentenced to death for refusing to obey the Hadrianic laws that forbade the teaching of Torah. The Talmud records: “When R.
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 were amazed: ‘Master, even unto this point?’ Dying, his body tortured, he explained that until then he had never had the opportunity of fulfilling ‘with all thy soul,’ shall I not fulfill it?’” (B.T. Brachot 61b).
The Shema is our testimony to our belief in ultimate redemption: “Hear O Israel, the Lord [of ethical monotheism] who is presently only accepted by us as our God, will eventually be accepted by the entire world as the only One true God” is the meaning of the phrase as explained by our Sages. With his dying breath, this is the final legacy of faith which R. Akiva bequeathed to all future generations.
Is it any wonder that we, too, invite R. Akiva to inspire our own Seder each year as we recount his commitment during that long, faithful and fateful night in Bnei Brak? Shabbat shalom and Hag sameah Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone institutions and the chief rabbi of Efrat. His acclaimed series of parsha commentary, Torah Lights, is available from Maggid Books, a division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem.