Beit Midrash

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Post-Atzmaut musings: Rabbi Akiva and the Hillel sandwich


Rabbi Stewart Weiss

"Who is like your people, Israel, a unique nation on Earth." (Book of Samuel II, 7:23).

What an amazing country we live in! We have just completed the annual roller-coaster ride that carries us through the highest highs and the lowest lows; the tears, the tragedies and the triumphs of Jewish life. I marvel at how we can take it all in stride: Celebrating in song and story one moment, standing in silence the next, and then returning once again to unbridled excitement.

I call this "the Hillel Sandwich." The sage Hillel, as the Passover Hagada famously tells us, would take two pieces of Matza - the primary food of Pesach, symbolizing our fervent desire to follow God wherever He might lead us - and sandwich (or should I say "Hillel," since he, and not some stuffy old Earl, originated the idea!) between them both Maror, bitter herbs, and Charoset, the mortar-like mixture of wine, apples, cinnamon and nuts. This seemingly irrelevant anecdote - and the custom it engenders to this day at every Seder - is an important, indispensable part of the story. For it sends the message that Jewish life invariably contains both blessing and bitterness, grief and glory.

The "Hillel" is the perfect metaphor for the four seminal events just passed. We began on Pesach, the first holiday of the calendar year, with a lavish Seder meal and 7 (or 8) festive days of celebration. But this upbeat time is quickly followed by Yom Hashoa - which has its own brand of "charoset," as we recall the horrific slave labor and death camps of World War II - and then Yom Hazikaron, when the nation confronts the bitter reality that more than 23,000 of our finest young men and women have paid the ultimate price for our survival. In a flash, though, we move on, almost seamlessly, to Yom Ha'atzmaut. The Yahrtzeit candles are exchanged for ceremonial holiday torches, the Israeli flags that graced the fallen soldiers' graves are waved proudly on every street and displayed in our homes and even from our cars. The emotional current of these days undulates through our bodies with hard-to-believe ease.

I am particularly in awe of the Holocaust survivors and the bereaved families who display unparalleled courage during these three weeks. Rather than hide under their covers or shrink to the sidelines, they bravely face their fears and join with the rest of the nation. While they are given the honor they richly deserve, it is really THEY who honor US by their determination to go forward with their lives and encourage the country to stay the course. As a bereaved father, our family is the recipient of much gratitude for our sacrifice. But I can tell you that we have a hundred-fold more gratitude for the kind of people who surround us, and for this country which upholds ideals worth living - and dying - for.

The post-Yom Ha'atzmaut period is characterized by Sefirat Ha-Omer. This "count-up" from Pesach to Shavuot, when the barley was harvested, was initially meant to be a happy time. But it came to be characterized by sadness and semi-mourning, both because it was during this time of year when thousands of students of Rabbi Akiva died, as well as the destruction of the Jewish communities along the Rhine during the Crusades of the Middle Ages. These twin tragedies have had a sobering effect, and have transformed Sefira from a mood of celebration to its current, subdued state.

It seems to me that Rabbi Akiva provides the perfect epilogue to the "Hillel Sandwich." Akiva was Jewishly-illiterate, a poor shepherd who only began his formal education at age 40, due to the urgings of his heroic wife Rachel. But he would go on to become the greatest Torah teacher since Moses, and would ultimately help lead the fight for Jewish independence, dying a martyr's death in the ill-fated Bar Kochba rebellion against Rome.

Akiva had every reason to be depressed, to be a defeatist. But instead, he was the paradigm of optimism and hope. When he lost his entire academy of scholars, he went out and cultivated new teachers to take their place (most prominently Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, whose life and death is the next holiday on our agenda - Lag B'Omer - this coming Wednesday evening). When his colleagues were despondent at the loss of the Temple, he reassured them that Israel would surely rise again. And even as he was being tortured to death by the Romans in Caesarea, he reaffirmed his faith in God and his willingness to give his life for a noble cause.

Every victim of the Shoa, every fallen soldier, I believe, carries within him or her the DNA of Rabbi Akiva.

As Susie and I walked along Ra'anana's main street on the night of Yom Ha'atzmaut, we stopped at one of the many stages to listen to the music, and watch the dancing by members of the Bnei Akiva youth group. My mind took me back to an interview I had done some years ago with a well-known symphony conductor, a lifelong musician and a survivor of the Holocaust, who had been in Buchenwald. When I asked him how he had managed to survive, he told me the following story:

"A group of us were taken from our barracks and ordered to dig a trench. The Germans told us that they were going to time us, and we must stop digging in exactly four and a half minutes. If we stopped before or after that time, we would be shot. They gave us a signal, and we each picked up a shovel."

"In the moment before we began to dig, I thought of a musical piece that was exactly four and a half minutes long. And I played that music in my mind as I dug. All around me, fellow Jews were stopping and were being killed. But, to the amazement of the sadistic Nazi guards, I continued and stopped exactly at the right moment, and so I was saved. And do you know what? In my head, that same music is still playing."

The song of the Jewish People can break your heart with sadness, and it can lift your spirits to exhilarating heights. But whatever piece it is playing at the moment, one thing is certain: The music will never stop; it will always go on.

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