The story of his death is but one of many stories about Akiva. He was part of that great generation of Rabbis who figured out a way to preserve Judaism without the great Temple that was heart and center of Jewish life before the Romans destroyed it in 70 CE. He supported the last great revolt (around 130 CE) against the Romans. The Talmud tells us (Brachot 61b) that at one point the Romans decreed that the Jews could no longer busy themselves with the Torah. Akiva was not afraid. He boldly defied this decree and brought together public gatherings of people to study Torah.
One day the Romans arrested him for this and brought him out for execution. It was the time of day for reciting the Shema. Despite the fact that he was being tortured terribly, Akiva recited the prayer. His students were stunned:
רבינו, עד כאן
Master, even this far!?!?!?!
Akiva's response to his students amazes me. In this terrible moment, he not only finds the strength to follow his religious practice, but he is able to show love for his students by teaching them one last lesson of Torah. Some words of the Shema have always troubled him, he says -- what does it mean to say בכל נפשך, with all your soul you should love God?
Akiva says it means, even if God would take my soul I should love and obey God. Even in the moment of death. Even in the most extreme condition that a human can find oneself in, that place is still the place for Torah. Its place is everywhere. That is the great lesson Akiva teaches. And that is the inspiration I find in it -- that the place of Torah is everywhere. It is in everything we do. It is not something that we do when we walk into a House of Worship or when we are in the presence of a clergy person. It goes everywhere.
There is a famous story about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He was known as a man very careful about observing Jewish law and ritual, certainly the kind of man who would be in synagogue on Shabbat and who would _not_ be walking long distances on Shabbat. And, yet, there he was one morning marching in a civil rights march with Martin Luther King. Someone asked him how he could not be in synagogue. He answered, "I'm praying with my feet."
Heschel was not saying that going to synagogue and following Jewish law were not important; just that they are not enough. There are other things the Torah calls us to do. He was saying that on this particular day the Torah called him to be somewhere else. This, too -- fighting injustice by supporting civil rights -- was a place of Torah. Even this far. Torah is not just in synagogue. It's out here in the world as well. In what we do in the world. In the way we relate to our neighbor.
Heschel was a deeply spiritual man and one of the greatest Jewish theologians of the 20th century. The story of his civil rights march also teaches us that, to be spiritual, an act does not have to be all dressed up in some kind of explicitly spiritual clothing. On that day, just moving his feet was spiritual -- was prayer. He didn't need to speak any words, or talk about God. Moving his feet was spiritual because of what motivated him to do it. It came out of his faith, out of his love and understanding of Torah and what Torah commands of us. It came out of the deepest reaches of his heart. Out of the parts of his heart that reached out beyond himself and his personal wants and concerns to the world and humanity as a whole.
I think of this often in my work as a hospital chaplain. So much of what I do is "just talking" talking to people, or sometimes just standing silently with them around their dying loved one. I never question whether this, too, is spiritual, whether this, too, is Torah. I think of Rabbi Akiva. I know that the Torah extends even this far. All this is spiritual.
Akiva's story also teaches us a lot about the importance of knowing who we really are, and of standing by that. Before his arrest, Akiva was asked by someone who saw him teaching Torah in defiance of the Roman order if he was not afraid of the authorities?
Akiva answered with a mashal, with a parable:
To what is this matter (with the Romans) similar? A fox was once walking along
a river. He saw fishes moving in groups from place to place. He asked, "why are
"From the nets that men cast upon us."
The fox replied, "would you like to come up on the dry land and we will dwell together here as
our ancestors once did?"
"The fish said, "Aren't you the one that they call the cleverest of animals? You are not clever, but foolish!! If we are afraid in the place in which we live, how much more so in the place in which we would die"
That is, the Torah is to the Jew like water is to fish. It is life itself. It is the air we breath. Things from the world around us may hold us in fear as we study Torah. But how much more so we would be in fear if we were to abandon it.
Again, I see the wisdom of this so often in my work in the hospital. For the people who have a Torah -- who have some kind of faith or other source of spiritual support -- there is much less despair from an illness. There may still be fear and despair -- few can face cancer and other serious illnesses without suffering some fear and despair -- but it will be much less. They will be much stronger.
We never know when the day may come suddenly -- as it did with Rabbi Akiva -- that we may die. Will we know who we are when that day comes? Will we know what we care about most? Will we be crippled by fear, or comforted by the belief that things of importance and permanance will live on when our time is over?
I hope that this blog will help me to take my faith even that far, that it will help me to learn more about who I am, about what means the most to me and how I can best serve God. I hope this blog will help me to share some of that Torah with others. I hope my Torah will extend even this far.