Introduction to this year’s class:
The Haddagah is one of the most commonly written about books in Jewish liturgy. Last year we focused on textual study, analyzing each piece textually for meaning. This year, we're going to go more conceptually with over-arching concepts in the Haggadah.
Today we're going to focus on one of the personalities mentioned in the Hagaddah. Someone with a story and opinion and how and why the Hagaddah finds him important.
So to go back a bit further, who wrote the Hagaddah?
90% of the Hagaddah is either pieces from Talmud or the Torah. 10% of the time, the Hagaddah steps out of that framework and presents you with a piece that has no Talmudic background. So the author of the Hagaddah is probably Talmudic time. After that time, people are already quoting from the Hagaddah.
So this piece that we’re going to discuss comes not from Talmud, but is a story of the Talmud personalities.
“An incident took place in which Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehosua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Tarfon were reclining in Bnei Brak and recounting the tale of the Exodus until their students came and told them: Our Rabbis! The time for saying the morning Shema has arrived.”
This is the first story about people saying the Hagaddah, telling the story, and it doesn't appear in the Talmud. So the commentaries explain, they were in Rabbi Akiva’s house. They were sitting at Bnei Brak at the home of Rabbi Akiva. How do we know this? Well we know where people were from:
Rabbi Eliezer was from Lud
Rabbi Yehoshua from Chaifah
Elazar ben Azaria from Modin (and Betar)
Rabbi Akiva lived in Bnei Brak
So these other scholars left their homes for the holiday and went to the home of Rabbi Akiva in Bnei Brak.
Now in the Talmud in tractate Pesachaim (Perek Tet Yud). There’s a story of Rabban Gamliel and the elders in Lod. They discussed laws of Pesach and they learned the law. But they didn’t spend the entire night telling the story; they spent the entire night going through the laws. Why is this piece of Talmud not used? What makes our story more important?
In the Midrash (Midrash Rabba is the most used, but there are others) Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael on Exodus, he quotes Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Akiva's teacher, who says that you should discuss the laws of Passover until midnight, proved out from the statement "What means the testimonies and statutes."
The author of the Hagaddah was showing his opinion that you should tell the story of the Egypt and the entire night, not as the Talmud says the laws, and not as Rabbi Eliezer says, discussing the laws and stopping at midnight.
Talmud Succah, Chapter 2 “Hayashein Tachas Hamit 27b), tells a story of Rabbi Il'ai, another of Rabbi Eliezer’s students, who went to Rabbi Eliezer in Lod for the festival. Rabbi Eliezer chastised him because he felt you should rejoice with your family on the festival & yet Eliezer went to Bnei Brak on Passover. (Probably not w/ his family) If you look at this through the Talmud's eyes, it's confusing; 5.scholars sitting around led by R. Akiva
A Midrash from Lamentations (Chapter 2) tells the story of the destruction of the second temple, as a parallel allegory to Lamentations. Looking at this time period and political pressures of the day may illustrate some of the pressures around the table and may indicate why people we hanging around Akiva's table all night.
So lets talk about the time period. Bar Kochba lived in Betar. Bar Kochba had 1/2 million people involved in his revolt. And the Jewish community never dreamt of life outside of Israel at this point. There were 70 years where they'd been exiled, (destruction of 1st Temple, and Esther story which leads them back to Israel; Esther's grandson builds a bigger version of the 2nd Temple, which had already been started by the likes of Mordechai and Ezra) . This is a for real exile, but as the destruction of the second Temple happened, a whole movement of people didn't believe this was going to be a permanent state.
So Bar Kochba 30 years after the destruction, was formulating his game plan for reclaiming Israel.
So the Midrash says that whenever Rabbi Akiva saw Bar Kochbah, he would greet him as the "King Messiah". R. Akiva felt that Bar Kochbah knew the right things. This was a tremendous boost for Bar Kochbah that Rabbi Akiva thought he was the visionary who will bring the people back and Bar Kochbah, in R. Akiva’s eyes, is the guy who got it right.
The Midrash continues, R. Yonatan said "grass will grow in your cheeks" (ie: you will see a miracle where grass grows on your face) and the Messiah will not have come.
Ultimately the Emperor Hadrian killed 80K of Bar Kochbah's followers and 200K men had their hands amputated.
For 3.5 years, Hadrian's forces surrounded Betar. Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria from Modin comes into Betar with sackcloth and ash in mourning. And he prayed daily for G-d to not let the tragedy happen. His being there was such a powerful force that Hadrian considered giving up and going home.
And so they tried to get him out of Betar, and when they succeeded, Hadrian was able to strike. Bar Kochbah considered R. Elazar Ben Azaria a moral breaker and murdered him. Obviously our story is before he was murdered, but it's in the midst of this chaos.
These men around R. Akiva’s table were not united in their position on where this unrest should go. R. Akiva was pro-Bar Kochbah, and the revolution, and Elazar ben Azaria thought he was misguided.
After the death of Elazar ben Azaria, Rabbi Akiva realized he was wrong about Bar Kochbah and withdrew his support.
In the midst of all this, a few years before Bar Kochbah's revolt, R. Yochanan Ben Zakai was one of the leading scholars of the age. R. Akiva wasn't a major player in the Temple days, but Yochanan ben Zakai was the great leader of the Jewish people during the destruction of the Temple. Jerusalem was under siege by the Romans for 4 years. The major conflict was 6 months, but the conflict was ongoing and Jerusalem was cut off, the walls were closed and they boarded off the city.
The fanatics in Jerusalem decided that they should go to war with the Romans rather than remain isolated within the walls, so they burned down the warehouses during the night. For two weeks Jerusalem was on fire. This forced the Jewish community to find a way to deal with the Romans.
So R. Yochanan Ben Zakai knew that the battle was over and it was a matter of time before the Temple fell, and they smuggled him out of Jerusalem in a coffin. His students carried him out in the coffin. The head of the Roman army stopped the coffin and R. Yochanan got out he showed him prophesy intelligence and floored the general. (R. Yochanan told him the Roman emperor had died…etc.) The general offered him one wish in return for his service. So R. Yochanan requested: the town of Yavneh and its sages; the family of Rabban Gamliel; and doctors for Rabbi Tzadok. The greatest center for academia was in Yavneh. He wanted them to remain unaffected by the war; the scholars in Yavneh protected.
R. Akiva later said (Talmud Gittin Hanizakin Ch 5), "He turns wise men backwards and makes their thinking foolish". Meaning he should asked that Jerusalem be spared. R. Akiva questions the decision of R. Yochanan and believes he made a fundamental error in judgment at one of the most crucial points in history. The Romans weren’t going to allow Israel to be independent, but if they left the Temple somehow there would be a rebirth. Versus witnessing the destruction of the Temple and moving the knowledge away from Israel. What Rabbi Yochanan did was cause Judaism shifted from physical location to a portable place where Judaism could be captured anyplace.
R. Yochanan Ben Zakai was looking for something that could survive beyond a physical location: intelligence and study, thinking to himself, “Let me figure out how to say that and provide continuity.”
Rabbi Akiva replies, “No, give us that reality of a physical location and that will maintain the core and essence of Judaism and continue to inspire the people.”
R. Akiva was a very vocal person with a strong vision of how he thought Israel should be and how Judaism should go. And he was up against personalities who had totally different ideas.
The further sets the mood of these people who don't agree with him, but yet come to his table for Passover to hear his views about redemption.
Gemorah (Bava Basra: Chezkas Habatim Ch 3) - R. Yishmael ben Alisha says ever since the day the holy temple was destroyed it would be proper that we don't eat meat or drink wine. That people should be in a state of mourning. You can't go around eating meat and celebrating outside Israel. But he’s not going to require that only because you never invoke a decree on people if you know they can't comply with it. "He continues “It would be proper that we shouldn't take wives or father children" (since we can't circumcise or study Torah) and then the Jewish people would disappear forever on their own, without being explicitly killed by the Romans. In effect, we don’t have the land, but we can't be Jews without the land. Game over. But he then follows it with that he wasn't going to decree that either. Thos idea that the Jewish people should just stop being Jewish because they shouldn't exist under these conditions; in exile, and forced to practice in secret, or electing not to practice at all because they can’t practice openly.
Rabbi Bukiet then told the story of how at a panel discussion, He heard Leon Wieseltier (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leon_Wieseltier), the author of Kaddish, Adin Steinsaltz (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adin_Steinsaltz), the famous Talmud commentator, and A.B. Yehoshua (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A._B._Yehoshua), Israeli author discuss the concept of "If the land of Israel ceases to exist, will the Jews still exist." A. B. Yehoshua had a similar view to our Talmud. Steinsaltz was obviously torn. He has made his entire career in Israel, he made Aliyah, his institutions are in Israel, but he knows that the Jews lived with Torah without Israel, and while for himself he wants to be in Israel and believes in Israel, but...
Wieseltier replied to him that in the language of the past explaining that Jews have existed with Israel, but A.B. Yehoshua explained that that was then this is now, and now the Jews can't exist without Israel.
So, this feeling that the Jews can't exist without Israel, was shared by other scholars of the time, besides Rabbi Akiva, but this other opinion was that it was the death of the Jewish people.
So what do we know about R Akiva? He was an optimist who worked his way through challenger and therefore had the largest following of Jews in Israel because he had such an uplifting and optimistic presence that people were able to put aside their personal difference to be with him.
He was a charismatic leader, you didn't have to agree with him, but you appreciated his personal life story.
In a story from Talmud that we didn’t discuss (Tannis; Seder Taaniyos Eilu Ch 3.) There was a draught and R. Eliezer instituted a series of 13 fasts, but no rain fell, and the people started to leave the synagogue, and R. Eliezer asked them if they’d prepared graves for themselves, and they cried, and the rains fell. Subsequently there was another drought and Rabbi Eliezer came and prayed, but he was not answered, then Rabbi Akiva came and prayed and the rains fell. And the Rabbis began murmuring against Rabbi Eliezer, but a Heavenly voice proclaimed, “It’s not because this is one is greater than that one, it’s because this one is a forgiving person.” This further illustrates the open nature of R. Akiva that he was able to move beyond his personal believes and extend a hand to anyone, and that allowed people to reciprocate.
The Talmud tells a story from Rav Yehudah in the name of Rav (Menachos, Hakometz Rabba Ch 3), that Moses ascended to the heavens and found G-d attaching crowns to the letters to the Torah, and asked why this was holding up the delivery of the Torah to the Jewish people.
G-d explained that he had to affix them now, because R. Akiva is in many generations going to come along and provide pages and pages of Halachot and analysis of them.
Moses then asks to see who Rabbi Akiva is. G-d tells him turns around and Moses find himself R. Akiva’s class and he sits himself down in the 8th row of students. (This is a reference to the level of scholarship in the room. He ends up in the eight row in Akiva's class.) Moses listened but didn't understand the teaching of Rabbi Akiva. (The commentaries say the language was different) and he became disheartened. Then at one point they asked R. Akiva where he got his opinion and he explained that Moses brought it down as part of the oral tradition, and Moses feels better and returns to G-d.
So Moses asked why R. Akiva didn't give the Torah to world. G-d told him to be quiet. That it was part of divine plan.
Moses asked to see him reward, having seen Akiva's Torah scholarship.
Moses turns around again and sees that people are in the meat market weighing the flesh that they combed off his body when he was murdered.
It was a reward. What Moses saw was that what took place in Rome was ugly and didn't fit, and it was painful. But G-d says that for Rabbi Akiva that was a reward in a way that was beyond the comprehension of Moses.
A last piece of Talmud that we didn’t get to (Makkos, Eilu Hein Halokin Ch. 3) tells the story of Rabban Gamliel, R. Elazar ben Azaria, R Yehoshua, and R. Akiva traveling on the road when they hear the sounds of Roman crows in the plaza and they start to weep, but R. Akiva smiled. And they asked him, why are you smiling? And he replied, why are you weeping, and they said (in short), “We weep because this heathens live in security and calm, while our Temple is consumed in fire.” Rabbi Akiva replied that’s the reason he’s smiling, for if this is the reward of people who transgress His will, how much more so, for those who do His will.
R. Akiva faced pain in the Roman Empire and sensed that it would lead to something good. He was an optimist in this awful time. He was able to take the worst moments in Jewish life and find the thing that keeps us optimistic and give people hope. Even to the point that he felt Bar Kochbah should lead them back to Jerusalem. He was able to look at pain, personal and communal, and say, "I am going to find the positive side of this." "I am going to make it work for the community." This was a person of leadership skills to rival Moses. This was a guy, right or wrong, who had the ability that Moses had to face some of the horrific and horrible moments and lift the crowd up.
That's the lesson of the Haggadah, people who put aside their personal beliefs for the greater good. Personally, he made have had wrong opinions, but spiritually he uplifted even great sages who disagreed with him, and attracted them and only that type of person can elevate Passover.