Celebration in the Shadow of Death (Ideas #107)

Iyar is one of the most perplexing months in the Jewish calendar. It is a month where too many things happen. On the one hand, we remember the death of Rebbe Akiva’s students which took place at this time. On the other hand, we also observe the miraculous events of more recent times commemorated by Yom Ha’atzmaut at the beginning of the month and Yom Yerushalayim at its end. These events seem to be at such variance that it is hard to know how we are supposed to feel.  But perhaps what appear to be very disparate events are not as disparate as we might think.

Rebbe Akiva played a central role in the flourishing of the oral law. A brilliant scholar and charismatic teacher, the survival of Torah study during the contemporary Roman persecutions was largely due to him. At the same time, his studies didn’t prevent him from preaching the eventual renewal of Jewish sovereignty in our land. In fact, such a vision was so central to him that he even considered a figure as problematic as Bar Kochva to be a messianic candidate. Thus, the victories of the Modern Jewish state, even with all of its problems, are ones that would have likely resonated with Rebbe Akiva.

But Rebbe Akiva’s mark goes beyond his historical importance. Whereas the Swiss have Willhelm Tell and the French have Jean d’Arc, we have Rebbe Akiva. He is the Jewish hero par excellence, which means that, on some level, his life story encapsulates the values and ideals of the Jewish people. And yet, perhaps not coincidentally, he lived in the shadow of death.

He lived in the shadow of his students’ deaths and he also lived in the shadow of his own death. Though his death sentence was not formalized until decreed by the Romans, one of his own teachers, the enigmatic Rav Eliezer, had already long declared that Rebbe Akiva would die in a most grisly way. From that time onwards, he knew that his fate was sealed. Were many of us to hear such an ominous pronouncement, it would cause us to reel back in contemplative dread. We would likely seek ways to preserve our lives for as long as possible and avoid any unnecessary risks. Thus, when the Romans forbade the teaching of Torah, we would have expected Rebbe Akiva to be very careful.  But rather than go into hiding, Rebbe Akiva continued his life mission undaunted. The rest of the story is well known. He continued to teach, was caught and subsequently put to death.

To some extent, one is reminded of Rosa Parks, the black American heroine, who defied segregation laws in Alabama by sitting in the front of a public bus. When policemen told her that if she continued to defy the law they would have to put her in jail, she responded,"You may do that." Indeed, Rosa Parks also knew that a (wo)man has to do what a (wo)man has to do. 

But there is a distinction. Whereas heroes like Rosa Parks make a personal decision to do what must be done regardless of the cost, Rebbe Akiva didn’t feel that there was a decision to be made. For a Jew, doing what needs to be done is not a decision – it is a way of life.

Shalom Aleichem’s Tevye compares the precarious situation of the Jew to that of a fiddler on the roof, but perhaps that is to make the situation more stable than it really is. We seek peace and security, and no doubt we should. But perhaps such is not the lot of the Jew in the context of human history.

The Zionist movement wanted to create a secure homeland for the Jews. However, when Uganda was presented as a candidate for such a homeland, the Jews refused to consider it. It was clear to them that the security afforded by Uganda was not worth the resultant betrayal of our true ancestral homeland. Rather, they waited for the opportunity to do what Jews have to do – to recreate a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael. That decision was made, come what may.

To be a Jew is to live on the edge. It is to rejoice in the sanctity and beauty of life but not to worship it. A Jew’s life must be lived in a certain way. Jews have disagreed and will continue to disagree about how we must live our lives, but however that is, Jews have always understood that living correctly must be done regardless of the price. When a Jew lives like that he dazzles and inspires the world. When he does not, he can scarcely be called a Jew. For the Jew who lives up to his identity, the choice between what is easy and what is right is no choice at all.

The holidays of Iyar don’t celebrate security. The victories that we celebrate came at a great cost. Maybe, like Rebbe Akiva, a Jewish country is fated to live in the shadow of death.  But a Jew does what he has to do. And he is happy when he accomplishes what he needs to accomplish.

Come what may.