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Is This Their Reward?

07/04/2014 01:05:23 PM


This essay is dedicated to the lives of Naftali Frenkel HY"D, Gilad Shaer HY"D and Eyal Yifrah HY"D


I’d like to reflect on the following few Talmudic passages about several incidents of Rabbi Akiva’s life and behavior. Rabbi Akiva was one of Judaism’s greatest sages and Tzaddikim in history – he lived at the end of the first century and the beginning of the second century CE.

1) Menachot 29b: “Rav Yehudah taught in the name of Rav: When Moshe ascended on high he found the Holy One, blessed be He, engaged in affixing crowns to the letters of the Torah. Said Moshe, ‘Lord of the Universe, what’s all this for?’ He answered, ‘There will arise a man, at the end of many generations, Akiva ben Yosef by name, who will expound upon each tittle heaps and heaps of laws’. ‘Lord of the Universe’, said Moshe, ‘permit me to see him’. He replied, ‘Turn around’. Moshe went and sat down behind eight rows and listened to the teachings presented by Rabbi Akiva to his students. Not being able to follow their arguments he became weak and ill at ease, but when they came to a certain subject and the disciples said to Rabbi Akiva ‘What is the source for this teaching?’ and he replied ‘It is a law given unto Moshe at Mount Sinai’ he was comforted.

After this experience, Moshe returned to the Holy One, blessed be He, and said, ‘Lord of the Universe, You have such a man and yet You are giving the Torah by my hand?!’ He replied, ‘Be silent, for such is My decree’.

Then Moshe said, ‘Lord of the Universe, You have shown me his Torah, show me his reward’. ‘Turn around’, said He; and Moshe turned around and saw them weighing out his flesh at the market-stalls, for Rabbi Akiva was one of the ten Sages martyred during the Hadrianic persecutions. ‘Lord of the Universe!’ cried Moshe, ‘such Torah, and such a reward!’ He replied, ‘Be silent, for such is My decree’.

2) Berachot 61a: The great Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Akiva, loved God so much, that he taught Torah despite the Roman law forbidding it. When the Romans found out, they sentenced him to a painful death. They took a large iron comb and began to scrape off his flesh. As he was being tortured, Rabbi Akiva joyously recited the Shema – "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One."

His bewildered students asked, "Rabbi, how can you praise God amidst such torture?"

Rabbi Akiva replied: "All my life, I strived to love God with all my soul. Now that I have the opportunity to fulfill it, I do so with joy!" With his dying breath, he sanctified God's name by crying out the words of Shema.

3) Makkot 24b: Again it happened that Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria, Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Akiva went up to Jerusalem. When they reached Mt. Scopus, they tore their garments. When they reached the Temple Mount, they saw a fox emerging from the place of the Holy of Holies. The others started weeping; Rabbi Akiva laughed.

Said they to him: "Why are you laughing?"

Said he to them: "Why are you weeping?"

Said they to him: "A place [so holy] that it is said of it, 'the stranger that approaches it shall die, and now foxes traverse it, and we shouldn't weep?"

Said he to them: "That is why I laugh. For it is written, 'I shall have bear witness for Me faithful witnesses--Uriah the Priest and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah.' Now what is the connection between Uriah and Zechariah? Uriah was [in the time of] the First Temple, and Zechariah was [in the time of] the Second Temple! But the Torah makes Zachariah's prophecy dependent upon Uriah's prophecy. With Uriah, it is written: 'Therefore, because of you, Zion shall be plowed as a field; [Jerusalem shall become heaps, and the Temple Mount like the high places of a forest.]' With Zachariah it is written, 'Old men and women shall yet sit in the streets of Jerusalem.'

"As long as Uriah's prophecy had not been fulfilled, I feared that Zechariah's prophecy may not be fulfilled either. But now that Uriah's prophecy has been fulfilled, it is certain that Zechariah's prophecy will be fulfilled."

With these words they replied to him: "Akiva, you have consoled us! Akiva, you have consoled us!"


What can we learn from all this?

When Moshe challenged G-d after seeing how Rabbi Akiva was being brutally murdered “Is this the reward for studying Torah?” G-d responded “Be silent, for such is my decree.” Was this an answer or a deflection?

It seems that G-d was indeed answering Moshe. He was essentially telling him, that although you can’t comprehend what is happening, and although it seems to run counter to all the I promise, I do indeed know what I am doing. You don’t. Most human don’t. How can any human think they can understand the infinite mind of the Divine?

Ironically, it appears as if Rabbi Akiva had a keen understanding of G-d’s ways. Rabbi Akiva was the one who knew how to decipher heaps and heaps of laws from a single crown of a single letter in the Torah. Rabbi Akiva knew how to read between the lines. Rabbi Akiva knew how to see what most others cannot. Rabbi Akiva knew how to view the world through the lens of its Creator.

When his colleagues saw destruction of the Temple and disgrace of its holy space, Rabbi Akiva saw the future redemption.

When his Roman captors were tearing Rabbi Akiva to shreds alive, he began excitingly reciting the Shema. Not even his students could make any sense of what he was doing, but he knew. He was celebrating his opportunity for mesirat-nefesh.

Dear friends, I am no Rabbi Akiva. None of us are. But we need to know that Rabbi Akiva’s have existed, and their views have provided us a small glimpse into the mysterious ways of G-d.

We are all torn, shocked, pained and angered by the senseless and callous murder of three innocent Yeshivah boys. We all need to echo the timeless words of our great teacher Moshe “Is this the rewards for studying Torah? Is this how G-d compensates his beautiful children trying to live a faithful life in their own homeland?” 

But then we need to retreat from our demands and anger, and reflect upon G-d’s answer. “Be silent. Have trust. Be comforted. Know that I, the Creator of all, know exactly what I am doing.”

I’d like to conclude with a story: One of Maimonides’ greatest students fell gravely ill. When Maimonides visited his bedside moments before he was to die, he asked his student for a favor: “Dear student, I have taught you everything I can. I’d now like to ask you for a favor. Here is a list of questions I have that I have never been able to resolve. These questions address matters of faith, suffering of the righteous, etc. When you go to Heaven, use my name and they will grant you free access to the Heavenly High-Court. Please go there and ask for answers to my questions. And then please return to me in a dream to relay their answers.”

The student readily agreed to the mission, and soon after passed away.

For months Maimonides waited anxiously for his student to appear in his dream. Then late one night, upon falling asleep over his Talmud, the student appeared to Maimonides. “Nu, what did they tell you?” “My dear Master, I must tell you the truth. I used your name and did indeed gain free access to the Heavenly court. I then took out the paper and began to read the questions. But as I was reading them, I fell silent. I realized that from where I was standing, there were no questions!”

Dear friends, let’s hold each other’s hands; close our eyes; lean on each other’s shoulders. Let’s strengthen each other. Let’s ensure that they didn’t die in vain by taking upon ourselves and extra mitzvah in their honor and merit. Let’s pray to Hashem that he turn things around quickly. That he send us great simcha. That he send us the final geulah immediately.

Thu, August 6 2020 16 Av 5780