Rabi Akiva - The Inspiration for Religious Zionism - Part Three by Rabbi Chaim Jachter
In the last two weeks we have presented Rav Yoel Bin Nun’s analysis of the dispute between Rabi Akiva and Rabi Elazar ben Azariah regarding the latest time for eating the Korban Pesach (and Afikoman) at the Seder. Rav Yoel understands that the dispute hinges upon how one understands the process of Geulah. Rabi Elazar ben Azariah believes that it must occur in an entirely miraculous fashion, and Rabi Akiva understands that it can occur in a somewhat “natural” manner as well. Rav Yoel suggested some ramifications of this dispute and we have suggested other ramifications as well. This week we shall conclude our presentation of Rav Yoel’s Shiur.
The Heavenly Throne
The Gemara (Chagigah 14a) records a Tannaitic dispute regarding a Pasuk in Daniel (7:9) that indicates that there are two heavenly thrones. Rabi Akiva at first suggests that one throne is for Hashem and one for David. Rabi Yossi HaGelili responds by critiquing Rabi Akiva for “naturalizing” the Shechina (Hashem’s presence). The Gemara records that Rabi Akiva accepted Rabi Yosi HaGelili’s criticism and retracted his interpretation. However, the fact that Rabi Akiva even suggested this interpretation seems to reflect his opinion that Hashem conducts the world in a somewhat “natural” manner.
Ein Mazal LeYisrael
The Rambam (Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 11:16) is famous for insisting that there is no truth to witchcraft and soothsayers. He believes that not only does the Torah forbid engaging in these activities, but also that they are also fraudulent and false. Many other Rishonim (such as the Ramban, Devarim 18:13) disagree with the Rambam, arguing that there is some truth to these matters, and the Torah simply forbids us from engaging in them. This appears to be yet another example of the Rambam’s understanding that Hashem operates in a “natural” and rational manner.
Perhaps the Rambam derives some support for his assertion from the Gemara (Shabbat 56b). The Gemara relates that a soothsayer predicted that Rabi Akiva’s daughter would die from snakebite on the day of her wedding. In reality, she did not die, because she was saved by the merit of the Tzedakah she had given to an indigent individual. The Gemara deduces from this incident that “Ein Mazal LeYisrael,” “The Jews are unaffected by Mazal.” The Rambam might interpret Rabi Akiva as teaching that there is no truth to the predictions of soothsayers and that one’s fate is determined solely by one’s behavior. The Rambam once again might be following the path blazed by Rabi Akiva.
Rav Moshe Shternbuch (Teshuvot VeHanhagot 2:457) writes that one should study Nach only when mature, since only the mystical explanations of Tanach are significant. Rav Shternbuch sees no value in understanding Nach in a “natural” manner. We in the Religious Zionist community, who do attach value to a “natural” and rational understanding of Tanach, seem to be following in the footsteps of the Rambam and Rabi Akiva.
Rav Yoel’s Explanation of Rabi Elazar ben Azariah and Rabi Akiva Sharing a Seder in Bnei Brak
Rav Yoel raises the question (which has been raised by many others as well) how Rabi Elazar ben Azariah participated in the Mitzvah of Sippur Yetziat Mitzrayim until dawn along with Rabi Akiva in Bnei Brak. According to Rabi Elazar ben Azariah it is no longer considered “night” after Chatzot on the fifteenth of Nissan (as we explained in the first part of this series). Rav Yoel answers that Bnei Brak was the home of Rabi Akiva (see Sanhedrin 32b), and Rabi Elazar ben Azariah acted in accordance with Rabi Akiva’s view since he was at the home of Rabi Akiva (see Shulchan Aruch O.C. 170:5).
Rav Yoel notes that this is particularly noteworthy because of the profound Hashkafic ramifications of this dispute between Rabi Akiva and Rabi Elazar ben Azariah (as we have discussed). Nevertheless, Rabi Elazar ben Azariah was sufficiently open-minded to be able to participate in a Seder with Rabi Akiva that followed Rabi Akiva’s Halachic and Hashkafic views. Rav Yoel commented that he wishes that the same would occur today.
Using this insight, Rav Yoel creatively explained why it was the students of Rabi Elazar ben Azariah who entered the Seder and announced that it was time to recite the Shema. Rav Yoel surmises that since Talmidim tend to be less flexible than their Rebbeim, the Talmidim of Rabi Elazar ben Azariah left the Seder in Bnei Brak after Chatzot in accordance with their Rebbe’s view. They remained outside Rabi Akiva’s home and were upset that their Rebbe “caved in” to Rabi Akiva’s view, especially in light of the great Hashkafic implications of the dispute. However, once dawn came, the Talmidim could not tolerate the situation any longer and marched into the Seder (Ad SheBa’u HaTalmidim) to put on end to what they perceived as an impropriety.
One might add that this is the reason why the Haggadah subsequently presents Rabi Elazar ben Azariah’s statement that he appears as if he is seventy years old (see Berachot 28a). After the Haggadah has devoted a paragraph to Rabi Elazar ben Azariah’s deferral to Rabi Akiva’s view of Geulah, the Haggadah informs us that Rabi Elazar ben Azariah did not retract his view. By referring to the outright miracle of his change of appearance, Rabi Elazar ben Azariah teaches that his personal Geulah and the Geulah of his generation (from the conflict surrounding the impeachment of Rabban Gamliel, see ibid. 27b) hinged upon an outright miracle.
In fact, it might be for this reason that Rabi Elazar ben Azariah insists (the Haggadah records this at this juncture) that Yetziat Mitzraim be recalled even at night. After all, Rabi Elazar ben Azariah is the one who believes that the redemption from Mitzraim occurred during the nighttime. It is interesting to note that the Rambam (Hilchot Keriat Shema 1:3) rules in accordance with Rabi Elazar ben Azariah that we must recall Yetziat Mitzraim at night, even though he rules in accordance with Rabi Akiva that the Korban Pesach may be eaten until the morning of the fifteenth of Nissan.
It could be that this explains why Rabi Elazar ben Azariah’s view was not accepted until Ben Zoma made his Derashah from the words “Kol Yemei Chayecha,” teaching that we must remember Yetziat Mitzraim at night. Before Ben Zoma made his Derashah, Rabi Elazar ben Azariah’s opinion was not accepted since it hinged upon his dispute with Rabi Akiva regarding whether Bnei Yisrael left Mitzraim in the evening or not. Ben Zoma’s Derashah taught that even those who agree with Rabi Akiva that Bnei Yisrael left Mitzraim in the morning could agree that we must recall Yetziat Mitzraim at night. The Haggadah records a story where Rabi Elazar ben Azariah deferred to the opinion of Rabi Akiva and subsequently records how followers of Rabi Akiva can accept Rabi Elazar ben Azariah’s ruling requiring us to recall Yetziat Mitzraim at night.
Recovery from the Bar Kochva Rebellion
The failure of the Bar Kochva rebellion might prove that Rabi Akiva’s opinion has been rejected. Indeed, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (cited in Nefesh Harav p. 88) believes that history proves certain opinions either correct or incorrect. In fact, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (commentary to Devarim 8:10) writes that the Berachah of Hatov VeHaMeitiv that Chazal appended to Birkat HaMazon after the failed Bar Kochva revolt is designed to “Keep the warning constantly in mind not to make the attempt again to restore the Jewish State by their own force of arms but to leave that national future to God’s management.”
However, Rav Soloveitchik (in his Five Derashot) argues that the success of Zionist movement to establish Medinat Yisrael against all odds proves that Hashem wants us to restore a Jewish State. We might suggest a compromise. Until the late nineteenth century, Hashem wanted Am Yisrael to follow Rabi Elazar ben Azariah’s philosophy and not attempt to reestablish Jewish sovereignty. However, beginning with the end of the nineteenth century, when efforts to resettle Eretz Yisrael started to be successful, Religious Zionists believe that Hashem wishes for us to follow Rabi Akiva’s understanding of Geulah.
According to Rav Yoel’s beautiful Shiur, the dispute that rages today among Orthodox Jews regarding the State of Israel is a reflection of the ancient dispute between Rabi Akiva and Rabi Elazar ben Azariah. We contemporary disputants should learn a lesson from the respect that Rabi Akiva and Rabi Elazar ben Azariah showed each other. Modern Orthodox Bnei Torah can be confident that they are following the approach of Rabi Akiva, and we can be respectful of Chareidi Bnei Torah who follow the approach of Rabi Elazar ben Azariah.