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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Lessons from the Life of Rabbi Akiva

THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF RABBI PINKY SCHMECKELSTEIN

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Lessons from the Life of Rabbi Akiva

Rabboisai,

The Talmud tells us that the great Rabbi Akiva spent forty years as a poor shepherd, uneducated, an ignoramus just like you, you Minuval. But one day he happened upon a stone whose center had been washed away by steady droplets of water over a long period of time. And it was at that point when he said to himself, "Schmuck! Why am I chasing goats around when there is a fortune to be made in licensing fees, royalties, and residuals?!" So began the rabbinic career of one of the greatest rabbis in history, alongside the RAMBAM, Reb Yoisaiph Karo, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and Rabbi Shmuli Boiteach.

What were the essential accomplishments of Rabbi Akiva, and what are the key messages of relevance for us in our day?

For one thing, young Akiva engaged in manual, subsistence labor as a shepherd. The man had to work, to make a living. Wait a second! Didn't he ever hear of welfare and food stamps and Medicaid and Section 8? He must have been a Misnagid! Or even worse - a Litvak!

Upon his moment of epiphany, Akiva embarked on a career of Toirah scholarship. He sat and learned Yoimum V'Layla, day and night, with Rabbi Eliezer Ben Hyrkanos and Nachum Ish Gamzu. He also studied under Moishe Ben Fred and Shloimi Zukt Farkert. There is a Medrish that says that he also sold cell phones on the side, and made additional spending money by scalping tickets to the local Siyum HaShas.

At some point Akiva, probably Rabbi Akiva by then, decided that it was time for Tachlis - time to settle down. So he married the finest catch in all of Jerusalem, Rachel, the beautiful daughter of Kalba Savua. And he promptly asserted his commitment to his new wife by leaving her to go back to the Yeshiva in Lod for seven years, and made sure to tell all of the women that he met in bars in Lod that his name was Ben Hey Hey, and that he was from Cleveland.

Rabbi Akiva was a renowned scholar. He was a major force in the canonization of the Toirah - selecting which books, and presumably which textual variants, to include in the TANACH, and which to leave out. The Gemarrah tells us that he was a strong advocate of including Shir HaShirim and Megillas Esther in the TANACH, but opposed including Maccabees 1 and 2, The Wisdom Of Ben Sira and Huckleberry Finn.

But perhaps his most important textual legacy is his contribution to the structure of Halachic literature. Rabbi Akiva lived at a time when the Pharasaic/ Rabbinic approach was gaining dominance in the Jewish world, as the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash ended worship in the Temple as the central form of connecting to the Reboinoisheloilum, and also ended the source of authority of the Tziddukim, the Sadducees, who were by and large comprised of the landed Priestly elite. Halacha, the growing movement of practicing Jewish ritual in one's daily life, became the popular form of worship among the masses. And Rabbi Akiva is credited with organizing Halacha within the framework of the Shishah Sidrei Mishnah - the six basic categories under which all of Jewish Law is organized. Lesser known is his impact on the organization of the body of... ummm... marital positions, later detailed in the different chapters of Maseches Baba Kama Sutra.

As notoriety of his brilliance grew, Rabbi Akiva gained many followers from all over the Jewish world (not unlike me). His principal students included Rabbi Yehuda Bar Ilai, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Eliezer Ben Shamua, Rabbi Yossi Ben Halafta, and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. But he had many thousands of other rank and file student followers. He also had an extensive Twitter following, a large following on Facebook, and a magazine named after him, "Akiva!" -- filled with lifestyle articles, relationship tips, and featuring the latest men's fashions -- available at the checkout counters of all the supermarkets in Judea.

Rabbi Akiva was more than a religious leader; he was a global figure. The Talmud tells us of his travels to Rome and meetings with the Roman leaders of his time, accounts which are almost certainly historical. There is also a legend that Rabbi Akiva traveled to Ethiopia to settle a marital dispute between a king and his wife. However, reports of Rabbi Akiva traveling to the Playboy Mansion to spend time with Hugh Hefner and the Kardashians is almost certainly myth.

As is well known, Rabbi Akiva was a strong supporter of the Second Rebellion against Rome, and even declared Bar Kochba to be the Moshiach. The practice of engaging in mourning rituals during Sefirah out of respect for the deaths of Rabbi Akiva's students is, in fact, almost certainly a tribute to Rabbi Akiva's students, who in actuality died fighting alongside Bar Kochba at the urging of their religious leader. And the celebration of Lag B'Omer is likely a commemoration of their one night of military leave during the war, which is why it is a strong Minhag on Lag B'Omer to either get married or solicit a prostitute.

Of course, Rabbi Akiva ended his life as a Martyr of Zion. The Talmud tells us how Rabbi Akiva was tortured to death by the Romans, with the skin peeled off his face with hot metal combs. There is a famous Machloikess about what his final words were. According to Abaya, Rabbi Akiva's final words were, "I have done many Mitzvois in my life, but today I have the unique privilege of dying Altz Kiddush HaShem. My life is now complete." According to Rava, his last words were simply the traditional final declaration of faith, "Shema Yisroel Adoishem Eloikeinu Adoishem Echad." But according to Rabba, Rabbi Akiva's last words were, "Ouch! Shit! That fucking hurts!!!"

So what are the relevant lessons of Rabbi Akiva for us, in our generation?

For one thing, Rabbi Akiva was a man of action. He worked for a living, and later, after studying Toirah, supported by his father-in-law, led a great yeshiva, and drove intellectual innovation in Torah study, transforming the teachings of his predecessors into a more structured foundation upon which the Mishnah was built. He also innovated in deriving Jewish law from the words of the Torah, and we have inherited from him the Midrash Halacha. In addition, he is said to have invented the crossword puzzle and, according to Rav Pappa, Tic Tac Toe.

Rabbi Akiva was also very much involved in the outside world. Most scholars believe that he was a key liaison between Jewish communities, visiting Rome, Babylon and elsewhere to ensure communal connectivity. He may also have been involved in raising money to support the uprising against the Romans, and is believed to have encouraged his students to participate in the military rebellion. He was also a world famous poker player, and for six years running was the champion of the Roman Empire's annual Five Card Stud competition.

Rabbi Akiva was capable of change; he did not view his life or his circumstances as a trap. When he decided to study Toirah, he did not hide behind the excuse of being too old or incapable. When he saw intellectual models and ancient teachings that did not make sense, he did not shirk his responsibilities by declaring that "Toirah does not change", but enacted profound changes. He also, later in his life, attended a real estate "no money down" seminar he saw advertised on late night TV and began to build up a real estate portfolio. In addition, he took a six month course to become a "Life Coach", and also became a yoga instructor.

But Rabbi Akiva was also fallible. Needless to say, Bar Kochba was not the Moshiach, and he and his army were ultimately slaughtered by the Romans until, as the Gemarrah tells us, the City of Beitar flowed with blood. As a result of Rabbi Akiva’s actions, thousands of his students died in a failed rebellion, and many others, inspired by Rabbi Akiva, also went to their deaths. And, as a consequence of the war, the Jews were banned from living in or visiting Jerusalem, save for Tisha B’Av, when they were allowed to come to the ruins of the Bais HaMikdash to mourn. This is the actual historical truth; it is somewhat whitewashed by the Gemarrah, which tries to place the blame of the failed rebellion on Bar Koshba alone. But Rabbi Akiva shared responsibility for this cataclysmic national tragedy that we commemorate to this day.

Consequently, Rabbi Akiva’s legacy is mixed. He left a profound intellectual imprint on Jewish thought and Jewish practice, and the many generations that followed that followed built intellectual towers open the foundations shaped by Rabbi Akiva. But many in his generation and subsequent generations suffered because they followed in his errant tactical decisions. Perhaps they viewed him as infallible. But only the Reboinoisheloilum is infallible. NO human being in infallible, save for me, Rabbi Shmuli Boteach, Rush Limbaugh, and Noam Chomsky.

As we look around the challenges faced by our Jewish Community today, there are many lessons we can learn from Rabbi Akiva. For one: Rabbis make mistakes. Whole Jewish communities make mistakes. Let us not ignore the mistakes. Rather, let us acknowledge them and fix them. That includes some of the most basic failure in contemporary Jewish society – which are not purely Jewish issues, but basic human rights:

-- Sexual abuse: There is a plague of sexual abuse within Jewish society. This includes sexual abuse of children, which is often denied and/ or covered up, and therefore enabled. We should not have to worry about the safety of OUR children attending Shul, attending school, going away to summer camp, or going to the Mikvah

-- Lack of education: Many in the Ultra Orthodox world are denied a basic secular education. Consequently, their professional options – the ability to earn a living – are highly limited. This runs against my understanding of the Gemarrah and other sources, where, for example, the Gemarrah in Sotah, Daf 44 Amud Aleph, discusses the requirement of a man to learn a trade

-- The estrangement of family members that leave the fold. Expulsion from the community because of religious differences often results in people being forced to cope with a world they are unprepared for, at a very young age, without proper social or economic tools. This can lead to self destructive behavior including substance abuse and other counterproductive activities

-- Denial of access to children. Often, when a parent decides to move away from communal religious norms, the community bands together to deny access of the parent to his or her child. This is denial of a fundamental human right: If a parent is qualified to nurture a child, it is absolutely IMMORAL to deny that parent access simply because their religious beliefs and practices differ from those of the community. Compromises between spouses and former spouses should always be found to ensure a stable environment and collaboration around child care and education. Stealing of children is what the Romans did to our ancestors in the wake of the failed Bar Kochba rebellion; it should never be done within the Jewish community. ANY Jewish community. (Minuval, if you are not listening, I can repeat it for you in Yiddish.)

Rabboisai, Rabbi Akiva had the courage to change. He had the courage to lead. Yet he was fallible. Overall, he is regarded as one of the greatest figures in Jewish history – on par with Moishe Rabbeinu and the RAMBAM. Let us learn the lessons of his life and act as empowered individuals, and not as the dumb sheep that Rabbi Akiva once herded before he embraced his profound destiny.

A Chessiva V'Chasima Toivah, you Minuval.

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Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Rosheshiva
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess

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