Just a Thought: A historical meeting

This story, which Jews everywhere read from Haggada just a few nights ago, is a personal favorite.

Autism Haggada 521 (photo credit: Courtesy of Alut)
Autism Haggada 521
(photo credit: Courtesy of Alut)
“It happened that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar Ben-Azarya, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarphon were reclining in Bnei Brak. They were discussing the Exodus from Egypt all that night, until their students came and told them: ‘Our Masters! The time has come for reciting the morning Shema!’”
This story, which Jews everywhere read from the Haggada just a few nights ago, is a personal favorite. At first blush it is the simple tale of five rabbis who get carried away retelling the story of the Exodus until their students need to gently interrupt them.
Yet, upon closer examination, we shall soon see that this tale is anything but simple and is actually riddled with questions and problems. The first problem is the absence of the families of these sages. If the main mitzva of recounting the Exodus from Egypt is to tell the next generation, where are the wives and children of these great scholars? If one wants to make the argument that this was a special “elite” Seder, not only would this violate tradition, but then where are the students? The great sages would hardly have given over any Torah without their students there to listen and record. If a sage gives over Torah and there is no one to hear it, it is like a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it; you have to question whether it made any sound at all. Why do the students have to come in from the outside to tell the rabbis that the time of kriyat Shema, the reading of the Shema prayer, has arrived? Why not just look out the window and see the dawn break themselves? Yet another issue is that Rabbi Akiva was the junior member of this distinguished group and a student of some of these men; how can he recline? Does not the Halacha state that one is not allowed to recline in front of his master? And finally – so what? What’s the big deal that these great rabbis spent the whole night telling of the Exodus on Seder night? Isn’t that what one is supposed to do? THIS ODD story does not appear anywhere in the Talmud or Midrash, yet it appears in the Haggada. Some scholars offer the explanation that this story isn’t describing a Seder on Passover night. Rather, this meeting took place on a different night during the Bar-Kochba rebellion during the years 132-135 CE. The story was preserved by memory and not in the holy books until it was finally included in the Haggada.
The Bar-Kochba rebellion was an attempt by Shimon Bar-Kochba to end the Roman occupation of Palestine and reestablish Jewish sovereignty over the land. In the beginning he was very successful, and none other than the great sage Rabbi Akiva himself declared Bar-Kochba to be the Messiah.
This explanation would offer an answer to all of the questions we asked above.
Rabbi Akiva may have been the junior member of the group, but he was the spiritual head of the Bar-Kochba rebellion. This explains why they were meeting in Bnei Brak; it was Rabbi Akiva’s home town and thus, as spiritual head of the rebellion and as mara d’atra (halachic authority) of Bnei Brak, he would have then the right to recline.
This also explains why the wives and children weren’t present; it was simply too dangerous.
As for the students, they stood guard outside and had to inform the rabbis who were meeting in a dark concealed place, perhaps an attic, basement or cave, hiding from the Romans, that the time for kriyat Shema had arrived. There were no windows in their hiding spot.
These rabbis met to discuss the Exodus from Egypt because it was the “Granddaddy” of all subsequent Redemptions. They hoped that discussing the Exodus would awaken other mystical, spiritual aspects of the Redemption and help them in their present situation. More importantly, it would inspire them.
THE REBELLION ultimately failed and its consequences were disastrous for the Jewish people; yet this story of hope survived and is recounted every year along with the Exodus from Egypt. Why? Upon an even closer look at the story, we discover that Rabbi Akiva was a descendant of converts to Judaism. Rabbis Tarphon, Eliezer and Elazar Ben-Azarya were all kohanim (members of the priestly line). Rabbi Yehoshua was a Levite. According to tradition, none of their ancestors had been slaves in Egypt. Nevertheless, they retold the story as though they were once slaves themselves This is an example of shared Jewish destiny.
We share a common fate and destiny and this is the source of our sense of Jewish peoplehood.
We were all slaves in Egypt and together we stood at Sinai. With Solomon we built the Temple and together with Zedekiah we watched it burn. We all joined the caravans to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple, and we were all taken into Roman slavery upon its conquest. We were all expelled from Spain and all suffered in the Holocaust. And once again, with our shared sense of Jewish destiny, we held our breath when the UN counted the votes to partition Palestine in 1947.
Jewish history is not a spectator sport.
Passover, whose last day we observe tonight, is an invitation to take an active role in the Jewish story. These men met to reinsert themselves into Jewish history, and that is why their stories are forever connected to the penultimate story of redemption, that of the Exodus.
The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many posthigh- school yeshivot and midrashot.