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“Parsha and Purpose” – Emor 5781

“Parsha and Purpose” – Emor 5781 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Martyrs or Haters? Why We Mourn the Deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s Students”

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Parshat Emor (Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23)

“Martyrs or Haters? Why We Mourn the Deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s Students

This really should be one of the most joyful periods of the year, a time when we are on the path to the ultimate redemption.

We recently celebrated our people’s physical redemption from Egyptian slavery, and we are now mere weeks away from celebrating our spiritual redemption – the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, a vital step on the way to the ultimate goal of living the Torah in the Promised Land.

And yet, as we know, this is a rather mournful period.

What derailed this process to redemption?

Every year, as we count these days between Pesach and Shavuot, we recall that 12,000 “pairs” of Rabbi Akiva’s students were killed by a deadly plague during this same period (Yevamot 62b).

And I would like to suggest that why they died, and what lessons we take from their deaths, has a significant impact on how we look at the process of redemption that we are on.

According to Rabbinic sources, Rabbi Akiva’s students died from asakara, a plague known in rabbinic literature to be caused by malicious gossip.

We learn that they died because 

לא נהגו כבוד זה בזה

they did not treat each other with proper respect (Yevamot 62b).

Yet in writing the history of the Jewish people, the great 10th century scholar Rav Sherira Gaon lists “sh’mada” as the source of their deaths, meaning that the students were martyred by the Romans in their brutal crushing of the Jews’ rebellion during the Bar Kochva rebellion (Iggeret Rav Shreria Gaon).

Now, clearly Rav Sherira Gaon was familiar with the same Talmudic and rabbinic texts as we are, which clearly name the asakara plague, the lack of respect,  as the reason for their death.

So why did he attribute it to the Romans?

And who is right?

As part of the rebellion, Bar Kochva minted coins for use by the Jewish population, which was in and of itself a statement of open defiance to the Roman occupation, which had issued its own coins as a means of imposing its authority.

In looking at the first coin minted by the Jewish rebels, we find an insight into at least one element of truth behind the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students.

As you can see, on one side of the coin is Bar Kochva’s name, as well as a picture of the Beit HaMikdash, highlighting what Bar Kochva and his army were fighting for.

On the other side of the coin it states למען ירושלים – for the sake of Jerusalem – accompanied by the illustration of a mitzvah that we read about in this week’s parsha, Emor: the arba’at haminim, the four species that comprise the commandment of “Lulav and Etrog” (Leviticus 23:40).

The picture shows one lulav, complemented by one hadas, on one side; and one arava on the other side.

An etrog, a citrus fruit, appears to the lulav’s left. 

While these four species are the same ones we use when we fulfill the commandment on Sukkot, the halakha as we observe it today follows the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael, that we use three hadasim and two aravot in our lulav and etrog sets (Sukkah 34b).

Why would the coin-makers of Bar Kochva’s era misrepresent the mitzvah?

Many have suggested that they simply wanted to show the lulav-etrog set as a symbol, as prominent ritual items associated with the Beit Hamikdash, the ultimate symbol of Jewish sovereignty.

But if we look at the message of Bar Kochva on a deeper level, we find I believe the deeper reason.

You see, Rabbi Akiva, Bar Kochva’s mentor, who supported his rebellion against the Romans, maintained that our lulavim should contain only one arava and one hadas.

Bar Kochva minted the coin according to the position of his Rebbe and ally, Rabbi Akiva. 

Another of Rabbi Akiva’s beliefs was that when it is necessary to go to war, Torah scholars must also participate.

In Rav Sherira Gaon’s account, Rabbi Akiva’s students died as martyrs, serving as soldiers in Bar Kochva’s army.

But when the Sages of the Talmud discuss the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students, they don’t focus on the historical event because that is not the goal of the Talmud. 

Rather, Rabbinic literature is interested in the spiritual lesson that we can learn – why the rebellion failed. 

And their answer focuses on the toxic cultural environment of the time: the gestalt of לא נהגו כבוד זה בזה, the absence of mutual respect (Yevamot 62b).

In order for the Jewish people to remain on the journey to redemption, we must demonstrate mutual respect.

This is not a cliche; it’s the key to breaking the impasse of Jewish history.

It is why both Pesach and Purim the holidays that reflect redemption have mitzvot associated with them that require showing concern for the other.

It is not coincidental that during this period, we celebrate both Yom Ha-Atzma’ut and Yom Yerushalayim, days on which we are especially mindful of issues of national sovereignty in ways that no  generation has had the privilege to consider since before the time of Rabbi Akiva and Bar Kochva.

We feel an exhilaration that comes with being alive in an era of Jewish history in which every day,we witness  the return of Jewish sovereignty in ways only dreamed of by our ancestors.

Ultimately, though, the long-view perspective of our Sages focusing on the underlying spiritual causes of the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students – and our crushing defeat at the hands of the Romans – is what shapes our focus during this mournful time period.

So as we commemorate and mourn the loss of Rabbi Akiva’s student-soldiers each year during Sefirat Ha’Omer, we re-affirm the need for Jewish armed defense of our sovereignty, while also recognizing that our complete, full redemption will only be possible when we’re willing to treat the “other” with respect.

Shabbat Shalom