The Journey of the Jewish Nation - Part I (Ideas #94)

Hegel and Rebbe Akiva


In the early years of my career, my primary assignment was teaching Jewish History. When the word got out that I had designed a semester course on the Holocaust, I was asked to replicate it for a group of survivors. I declined, feeling that no matter how much insight I might have had on the subject, it would have been inappropriate to teach them anything about what they experienced on such a personal and emotional level.  At the same time, when it came to my high school students, I felt that I had nothing less than an obligation to help them grapple with this sensitive topic. After all, we Jews were the first people who saw G-d in human history, both in times of national glory and in times of national calamity.


In contrast, the distance that we have from the events of Tisha B’Av allows us to approach those equally horrible events with a greater chance at understanding them. And it is my contention that having a better understanding of Tisha B’Av, and the long and bitter exile that it represents, may well be the key to understanding the nature of Jewish history as a whole.


In looking to comprehend Tisha B’Av, a good place to start is the life work of R. Akiva. R. Akiva is known for the many unusual and profound statements made over the course of his remarkably productive and traumatic life. In fact, traumatic may be an understatement here. Without even mentioning his martyr's death, R. Akiva spent much of his life enduring hardship of one type or another. From being privy to heavy-handed Roman oppression to the loss of nearly all of his thousands of students, to losing his own son, his was anything but an easy life.


It is curious then, that R. Akiva of all people would have been the protagonist of the famous story in Berachot (60b) in which no matter what happens to him, he keeps on repeating that all that G-d does, He does for the good. In the story, R. Akiva illustrates this point with an example: Once when he was on the road, he was refused lodging in a certain town. Having no other choice, he went to sleep in the forest, only to lose his rooster, his donkey and his torch. In the end, he concluded that everything had happened to save him from an enemy battalion who raided the town in question and who would have captured or killed him had they encountered him, seen his torch or heard his animals. A nice story, but certainly one that rarely happens – and one that R. Akiva knew, from his own life story, rarely happened. But then again, R. Akiva was known for his mystical approach, looking to understand the meaning of things beyond surface appearances.


This mystical approach may help us understand another famous and perhaps even more perplexing statement of R. Akiva in Makot (24b). When his colleagues question R. Akiva for laughing when he saw foxes running over the destroyed Temple mount, he answers them by saying that now that he saw that this prophecy has been fulfilled, he no longer doubts that the prophecy of redemption will also be fulfilled. If we take this statement at face value, it is very hard to understand how one of the most dedicated Jews of all time could doubt the words of our holy prophets.


One of the commentaries, the Etz Yosef, points out that it was not a doubt in prophecy that R. Akiva was expressing but the opinion that the only way there can be redemption is if there was also destruction. The Etz Yosef does not explain this, but only indicates that it is a mystical view of things.


Regardless, we still need to understand why seeing the fulfillment of the destruction should actually console us and even bring joy to R. Akiva.  I would like to suggest the following explanation. Maybe R. Akiva saw that, already on their way out of Egypt, the Jews chose the more likely path of living within natural human history, as opposed to living supernatural lives that would have put them outside of history. They made this choice by sending out the spies who would carry back an evil report of the land of Israel, and once they did so, there could no longer be any supernatural shortcut to the final redemption. The only way to accomplish the redemption would be by way of some level of destruction. And so the sages say that together with the crying over the spies' report came the inevitability of crying for the generations associated with the destruction of the Temple on that very same day of the year.


Indeed, the path of natural human history may well be a path that requires destruction in order for there to be progress. In the words of G. F. W. Hegel, perhaps the greatest philosopher of history, “Change, while it imports dissolution, involves, at the same time, the rise of a new life - that while death is the issue oflife, life is also the issue of death... Spirit – consuming the envelope of its existence – does not merely pass into another envelope, nor rise re-juvenescent from the ashes of its previous form; it comes forth exalted, glorified, a purer spirit.”* In this same vein, R. Baruch Epstein, in his Torah Temimah commentary, explains why our sages proclaim that, while most of G-d's creations were only good, the creation of death was actually very good.


Hegel goes on to  assert that simply saying that Providence runs the world –  which we could equate with the first story of  R. Akiva, in Berachot above –  is not enough. Rather, he sees a deeper understanding of the machinations of human history as a theodicy, as well as a distinct religious imperative to enrich our knowledge of G-d. It could well be that this deeper understanding is exactly what R. Akiva was alluding to in his second otherwise almost incomprehensible statement that, had the first prophecy not been fulfilled, he was concerned that the second would also not be fulfilled – that only in the destruction lay the actual seeds of redemption. (Part II of this essay will explain why this is the case.)


Our tradition tells us that G-d sometimes does rescind negative prophecies, and so the prophecy of destruction did not have to be fulfilled. But were it not to have been fulfilled, it would come at what R. Akiva knew would be an ultimately untenable price. He knew that the fulfillment of destruction was the only way to obtain the redemption that embodies the purpose of our national existence.


The mystical hints of R. Akiva were something that Hegel may have understood, albeit not from R. Akiva, but rather from his own spiritual quest, which was at least informed by what Cahill calls the “Gifts of the Jews.”


Like his colleagues, R. Akiva also tore his garments when he saw the Temple mount – to mourn is to be fully human and to do what G-d wants from us. Still, to see beyond our human emotions is to approach the Divine.



*In the context of this essay, it is worth noting that Hegel’s motivations in his quest to understand and explain the ways of history: “Our mode of treating the subject is, in this aspect, a theodicy ... so that the ill that is found in the World may be comprehended, and the thinking Spirit reconciled with the fact of the existence of evil. Indeed, nowhere is such a harmonizing view more pressingly demanded than in Universal History; and it can be attained only by recognizing the positive existence, in which that negative element is a subordinate, and vanquished nullity.”