One of my favorite shows to watch as a child was called Voyagers. I was thinking about it recently so I Googled it and found that it ran for just one season before being cancelled, but the general story was as I remembered. A macho guy and a smart kid travelled through time to try and set history straight. At the end of each episode there was encouragement to learn more about the events portrayed in the episode by visiting something called a library, whatever that might be. The first episode was even about our story – making sure Moses’ basket was nudged in the right direction down the Nile. The time-travel genre is also time tested in tv, including Quantum Leap (another favorite), many movies, tons of books, and in the often-asked question “if you could travel to any moment in history what would it be”?
Our High Holy Day service encourages us to do a bit of time travel, visiting in our minds the first Yom Kippur as described in the Torah, later Yom Kippur observances led by the High Priest in the Temples of Jerusalem, and more broadly but just as meaningfully connecting ourselves to the generations of Jewish communities who have uttered similar prayers, dreamed similar and different dreams of the future, likely never in the wildest of those dreams imagining a Jewish community or Jewish world quite like this one. We are strong and vibrant and even have some influence, and we are divided and argumentative and too often quick to talk and slow to listen. We are traditional and contemporary, we are international and influenced by the needs and personality of our local community, we are dedicated to outreach and constructive relationships with our fellow Jews and our non-Jewish neighbors. We don’t know who first said it but it is so very true: Jews are just like everyone else only more so.
I know the era I would like to visit. And when I say visit I mean it – I would only go if I could also come back, because no chapter of Jewish history has presented the unique combination of challenge and opportunity, blessings, accomplishments, and potential as this one. Some would choose the few months that encompassed the Exodus from Egypt, splitting of the sea, and revelation at Sinai. Others might want to meet Abraham or Rebecca, track down Maimonides, sit in a class with Rashi, attend the first Zionist conference with Herzl or heck even sit next to Sandy Koufax in shul on this day 52 years ago. There are an unending number of possibilities from which to choose. Here’s mine.
About my choice it has been written “Every historical age might be said to be one of crisis and change, but in the history of the Jewish people, no time was more so than the first century of the Common Era.” And so we set our time travel device for the year 131 of the common era, destination, ancient Israel, though the maps at that time would say it was Roman Palestine. I would seek out one man, who had been born some 81 years earlier and would, unless I messed up the space-time continuum or whatever, be destined to die a cruel death just four years later. I would hire a donkey driver and ride around the places he may have lived and worked – like so much of the historical record about his life, this information is not clearly reported. I would make the mistake of asking to be taken to a rabbi, and the driver would say “what is a rabbi?” because most people at the time did not know. We would look for and find Akiva ben Yosef, the figure who is somehow towering and somehow equally down to earth, and I would ask him a few questions.
He would later come to be known as Rabbi Akiva but in the thousand times he is mentioned in the two Talmuds of our tradition he is “just” Akiva. He is one of the earliest rabbis – oops, I did it again – one of the earliest teachers of Judaism in a time when its future was hardly assured. The Temple had been destroyed when he was a young man – 20 years old. To the kids here I know that does not sound young but just trust me on this one. Leading to that cataclysm was an attempted rebellion against Rome which failed miserably. Razing the Temple Mount to its foundations, the Roman Emperor renamed the city Aelia Capitolina and built a Temple to the Roman god Jupiter on the site of the Jewish Beit Hamikdash. Sovereignty was gone, the currency was Roman, a legion of troops must have kept order with a heavy hand.
It was this world into which Akiva, son of Joseph was born. That is all we know about his childhood, so we cannot learn anything about what it takes to raise a sage from what his parents did or did not do for him. The earliest story we have of him is not of his birth but of his rebirth.
What was the beginning of Rabbi Akiva? It is said: He was forty years old and he had not studied anything. One time he stood at the mouth of a well and said: “Who hollowed out this stone?” He was told: “It is the water which falls upon it every day, continually.” They said to him: “Akiva, have you not read the verse, ‘water wears away the stone?’ (Job 14:19). Immediately Rabbi Akiva drew the inference that the verse applied to himself: “If what is soft wears down the hard, how much the more so shall the words of the Torah, which are as hard as iron, hollow out my heart, which is flesh and blood!” Immediately he turned to the study of Torah. [Avot d’Rabbi Natan]
He didn’t go to Jewish Day School or even the Mirochnick Religious School as a child. There is no report of a bar mitzvah, confirmation, or taking a Jewish studies class in college. But he had an eye for what Heschel called a necessary aspect of a religious personality, and that is wonder. He wanted to know not just how the well got to be the way it was but how to become the best he was capable of being. He knew that his heart needed softening, that his every thought and feeling could be refined if only they were first filtered through the words and ideas of Torah. How are we to be in this world, what is our stance, how do we find and fulfill our purpose? A holy day like this one is a good day to ask those questions, and as I said on Rosh Hashanah, by asking you are halfway to the answer. It is on this day that we affirm that while it is less than likely any of us will become the next Akiva, it is never, ever too late to start, and when circumstances grant us no better choice, to start again.
This late starter had a boost into the stratosphere of memorable teachers of our people, and that boost was provided by the woman who would become his wife. Some more than others can relate personally to how his future father in law reacted when he saw this poor unworldly boy, with no noteworthy people anywhere on his family tree together with his no doubt beautiful daughter with the world at her feet who was in love with him.
As the story is told in the Talmud, Akiva “was a shepherd of [a wealthy man named] Ben Kalba Savua. Ben Kalba Savua’s daughter saw how modest and outstanding Akiva was and she said to him, “If I agreed to marry you, would you go to study with a rabbi?” “Yes,” he replied. She was then secretly betrothed to him and [she] sent him away to study with a rabbi. When her father heard what she had done, he threw her out of his house and vowed that she would not benefit from his wealth. (b. Ketubot)
Current fathers in law and mothers in law are either smiling or nodding with understanding. Everyone can relate to the beauty, power, messiness, and possible disaster of viewing from one generation removed the choosing of a partner for life. I’m reminded of a joke of course. A young Torah scholar meets the father of the girl he wants to marry. And the potential future father in law says tell me, how will you make a living, and the boy says God will provide. How will you put food on the table? God will provide. How will you buy and set up a home? God will provide. Later his wife asks the man “how did it go with our future son in law?” And he said, “I don’t know if it went well or not, but I do know that he thinks I’m God.”
Like Ben Kalba Savua experienced there may have been a day or there might yet be a day when you are disappointed in or unsure about the choice of a spouse a child has made. You have faced or will confront a significant series of decisions on how to manage a feeling I imagine ranges from a dull ache to total heartbreak. I have seen all sorts of approaches, from patience and gritted teeth to, like Akiva’s father-in-law, breaking off all ties. There is no one right answer. But usually in life it is those who remain open to the possibility of a better connection being developed who have the best odds of that becoming reality. Akiva was open to that very possibility, and when he could have slammed a door shut instead he opened it wide. Here’s how.
Remember that Akiva’s fiancée said I want you to go study, so off to study he went. He returned 12 years later, and she promptly sent him away for another 12 years. When he returned he was not alone – he had 24,000 of his own students with him, all hanging on his every wise word. His father in law did not recognize him! So now Rabbi Akiva said to him, “If you had known that your daughter’s husband was a great man, would you have made [the vow that she would not benefit from your wealth]? Ben Kalba Savua said to him, “If he had known only one chapter, or even only one law, I would not have made that vow!” [Commercial interruption: Akiva could have said well that wasn’t very nice, and now you will pay for your mistake because with my fame and accomplishment I don’t need you, and he could have been justified in turning around and walking away. But the story ends differently.] Akiva said to him: “I am he!” Ben Kalba Savua fell on his face, kissed Akiva’s feet, and gave him half of his wealth. (b. Ketubot)
Akiva became a respected authority. He did what was not a foregone conclusion – he began interpreting the Torah, even, as the midrash teaches, finding heaps and heaps of laws in the tips of the crowns of the letters in the Torah scroll. He found a new way to practice the religion whose foundation is the Torah and you would recognize it, because in large measure it is the Judaism we practice today. A Temple based religion suddenly had no more Temple. Usually that religion would go away – Akiva and his early colleagues saved it and very possibly improved on it. Yom Kippur depended on the work of the High Priest visiting the Holy of Holies but that position and that space was no more – usually that holiday would go away but here we are. A focus on learning and doing, ethics, kindness, sincerity, communal worship and old and new rituals developed. As importantly, the stories of Akiva’s erudition, decency, and respect for everyone regardless of whether they agreed with him or not became the stuff of legend. As one recent book on Rabbi Akiva puts it, “his mode of interpretation set the tone for the approach to reading Jewish texts that influenced all of later Jewish religious history.” (Barry W. Holtz, Rabbi Akiva)
But even for the rabbis who would tell and re-tell his stories – all of which are true and some of which might have really happened – Akiva was prone to one mistake and that was an unrealistic hope that he would see a restored Jewish nation of Israel in his lifetime. This led to misplaced trust in a leader, some would say a demagogue, who said he could make it happen. And it is why I want to leap in to history in 131 C.E., and against the rules of time travel, try and stop a disastrous war that would begin less than a year later.
The Talmud speaks of a man nicknamed Bar Kochba, the son of a star, who riled up the people of Judea and told them they did not have to live under Roman sovereignty, God was on their side, they could rise up against their Roman overlords and they could win. He coined money with the seal of Judea on it – we know this because archeologists have found these coins, with inscriptions of the Jerusalem Temple and on some, a star. You can imagine that the Romans were none too pleased – this was yet another rebellion, and there were still people around who remembered the one from some sixty years earlier. One of those people was Akiva. As a respected leader he was certainly looked to for an endorsement, from both sides – those who wanted to revolt and those who did not.
And this is where I would say Akiva, you have reinvented a religion that I can tell you is going to outlive you for more than 2000 years. You can be confident that people will still be talking about you and your creativity centuries from now. You are taking an enormous risk here, whichever side you come out on, but one of them is a greater risk than the other. So please: what is your thought process? How does one of our greatest teachers decide whether it is a moment of great transition in history or if you will advise working slowly and surely toward a goal that might not be achieved for a long time? I would tell him and he would have no earthly reason to believe me that if he chooses to back the rebellion, it would be precisely 1,813 years before Jewish coins would again be struck in the land of Israel.
What will you decide? Are you prepared to face the consequences of another failed rebellion? And because in these time-travel fantasies all efforts to change history generally fail or go badly I would expect to hear the answer that is recorded in the Talmud as Akiva refers to Bar Kochba: “This one is King Messiah.” He will lead us to redemption, a sovereign state of Israel which we want, and possibly even the messianic era of peace for the world, which we need.
He was wrong. Bar Kochba was a false messiah – if the rabbinic record is correct, and to be fair it was written down many generations after the events it reports, and sometimes authors are writing more for their own purposes than for history – Akiva backed the wrong horse and the penalty was severe. Thousands were killed and the archeological evidence suggests that every single Jewish town in that part of Israel was plowed under and the people scattered. The fullest Jewish diaspora had begun.
Later in the service we will read the rabbis’ version of Akiva’s own end, as we remember tragedies of our people’s history on this day of memory and accountability. He was arrested for teaching Torah in public, and he was tortured and he was killed. But even at the end, it is taught, Akiva was a model of faith in God and in the Jewish future.
More than how to die as a Jew he left the beginnings of an exceptional guide of how to live. The legacy of his life is one that helps us to understand our core commitments not only as Jews but as seekers of knowledge and meaning, within a tradition that might not have survived an extinction-level event had it not been for Akiva and his early colleagues, who handed it off to the next generation who handed it off to the next generation who handed it off to us. Our Judaism demands sacrifice – and as some people like to say about golf, it is time consuming, it is difficult to do well, and it is expensive. Yet enough people in each generation have established homes and families and dedicated themselves to synagogues, schools, organizations and charities to sustain it. We are among the fortunate ones who have been called by our glorious and devastating history to do our part not just to keep it going but to make it even stronger. We honor the memory of those who came before us and we honor their sacrifices. We pledge to carry forward the lessons of their lives, as we remember our loved ones during Yizkor, and the founders of Judaism as we know it every time we are taught in their names.
Goodbye for now Akiva – I’m going back to a place even your extraordinary mind could not imagine. But I promise you, whether you believe me or not, the work you have done in your life will inspire millions, and as long as the Jewish people walk this earth, your name will never be forgotten. May we also merit through our lives the chance to be remembered for good.
In a moment we will turn to Yizkor.