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Success and Ideal

Why do we continue to praise and commemorate the activities of Rabbi Akiva and Bar Kokhba generation after generation? Was not their war on the Romans a reckless step, a lost cause that brought nothing but tragedy and hardship upon the Jewish people?


Rabbi Ya'akov Peleg

Iyar 5767
Why do we praise and commemorate the activities of Rabbi Akiva and Bar Kokhba generation after generation? Was not their war on the Romans a lost battle that brought nothing but tragedy upon the Jewish people?

The following could serve as a question on a college entrance exam or an Internet opinion poll. In my opinion there is no fundamental difference:

Far off, somewhere in the land of Rwanda, lives a Shrulu tribe. The Shrulus, like all of the other tribes in the area, are subjects of the British Empire. One day, a charismatic tribe-leader by the name of Kochobo rises to power. The venerated tribe magician, Okovo, prophesies that Kochobo will free the Shrulu tribe from British subjugation. A revolt breaks out. The British send two war ships to put it down. Most of the tribe is annihilated. Thereafter, the Shrulus set aside a day each year to duly commemorate these events via: (choose the correct answer in your opinion)

(a) cursing and pouring scorn on Okovo and Kokhobo.
(b) pledging allegiance to the British Crown.
(c) reflecting upon the sanctity of life and the obligation to protect it at any price.
(d) reflecting upon the teachings of these national heroes, lighting bonfires, playing bows and arrows.

I beg the forgiveness of Rabbi Akiva and Bar Kokhba (whom the attentive reader was wise enough to identify here), but there is nothing better than a good parable to raise a question. As a matter of fact, many have reached what would appear to be an obvious conclusion regarding the activities of our heroes. The following excerpt was published as a letter to "Yerushalayim" newspaper (14 Iyyar 5759/1999):

"Next week Jewish children will celebrate Lag B'Omer and their kindergarten teachers will tell them all about the great bravery of Bar Kokhba. We may assume that they will not be told about the recklessness of rising up against the superpower of the day, Rome, or about the battles waged despite the opposition of the majority of rabbis and leaders, or about the tragic consequences of the false Messiah's escapades.

"The uprising, which was put down in 135 CE, brought rivers of blood, 'to the point that horses sunk in the blood up to their nostrils,' and the onset of the exile. Every nation needs its myths and its heroic figures. It is a pity that our children are reared upon such a tragic and damaging figure. Similarly, it is a pity that our policy-makers fail to learn from the experience and do not understand that a small nation must take into consideration the entire world."

We must apparently admit the ascription of ''the majority" to the realist camp; however, we must question the historical accuracy of this description. Rambam (Maimonides), for example, believes otherwise: "Rabbi Akiva was the wisest of all the sages of the Mishnah, and he, together with all of the sages of his generation, believed that [Bar-Kokhba] was the Messiah King" (Hilkhot Melakhim 11:3).

Perhaps the author of this letter takes the opinion of Raavad ad loc. The position taken in the letter enjoys a variety of supporters. A certain individual who considers himself Haredi wrote a book whose title says it all about its content: ''False Messiahs - From Bar Kokhba to Herzl."

I am astonished that a person who lives by an oral tradition which goes entirely ''according to the opinion of Rabbi Akiva" can hold that Rabbi Akiva made a terrible mistake which resulted in the deaths of three million Jews. Let us look closely at the words of Rambam:

"Do not imagine that the Messiah King must perform miracles and wonders, or create new things in the world, or resurrect the dead, or similar such things. This is not so, for Rabbi Akiva was the wisest of all the sages of the Mishnah and he was the arms bearer of Bar Koziva the King (i.e., Bar Kokhba) and he would refer to him as the Messiah King, and he, together with all of the sages of his generation, believed that [Bar-Kokhba] was the Messiah King until he was killed due to his iniquities, and when he was killed they understood that he was not [the Messiah]" (Hilkhot Melakhim 11:3).

Rambam proves that miracles and wonders are not a necessary sign of the Messiah, for Rabbi Akiva did not demand them of Bar Kokhba. Yet Rabbi Akiva erred, so how can we bring proof from him? No! Rabbi Akiva did not err. If he had erred, Rambam would have written that Bar Kokhba died because he was not the Messiah! If Bar Kokhba died because of iniquities, this means that were it not for his iniquities he would have succeeded.

In order to dispel any doubts, Rambam makes it clear that if a similar situation should arise we will again stand by the leader: "And should a king rise up from the house of David who is fluent in Torah, and performs commandments like David according to the Written and Oral Torah, and compels the entire Jewish people to follow it, and repairs its breaches, and fights the battles of God - such a person is presumed to be the Messiah" (Hilkhot Melakhim 11:3).

Rabbi Akiva cannot be hurt by a letter in a newspaper, "The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God shall endure forever" (Isaiah 40:8). The real danger stems from a world view and all that derives from it. This danger lays in wait for us, and you might call it "pragmatism."

Many years ago, I recall, an announcement was made before a Maccabee Tel Aviv basketball game informing the crowd that a certain athlete would not be playing on this occasion. The announcer then wished the player a speedy recovery from the flu on behalf of the fans. Those who were in the know grinned at hearing the athlete's drug problem referred to as "the flu." Terrible, really, but it's alright. After all, its just a league game. The important thing is that he is well for the European Cup, that he takes to the court and helps brings home a victory. If he takes the Cup, nothing else matters. Success atones for many things.

"No need for an inquiry committee to investigate the Prime Minister . . . in our opinion he is doing a good job.'' This is the philosophy adopted by all sectors of the political spectrum. It was adopted by some regarding the Arik Sharon of the disengagement and by others regarding Arik "the King of Israel" who did as he pleased in Lebanon. "So long as he is good for me, no problem . . . "

The important thing is popularity. Rating is the central, if not the only, criterion when it comes to media broadcasts, newspaper and magazine articles and photos. What matters is that it works, that it brings in money, even if it appeals to the lowest and basest common denominator. The day is fast approaching when people will consider it worthwhile for Israel to privatize the IDF, and, perhaps, to become a state of the U.S.A.

The month of Iyyar presents a good opportunity to confront this attitude. This, incidentally, is not a new attitude. As a matter of fact, Ramban (Nachmanides) describes a certain type of idolatry as follows:

"Some would worship human beings, for when they saw an individual ruling over a large state with great fortune, like Nebuchadnezzar, his subjects believed that by serving him and focusing their thoughts upon him their fortune would improve with his. He also believed that if they were to focus their thoughts upon him, he would be more successful by virtue of the concentration of their souls upon him. This was the opinion of Pharaoh . . . and Sennacherib . . . and Hiram . . . " (Torah Commentary, Exodus 20:2)

It seems to me that this was the attitude of those German generals who, after the invasion of Normandy by the Allied Forces, devised a plan to assassinate Hitler. In their eyes, failure to succeed was his sole crime. This is clearly not the Jewish approach. The entire being of the nation of Israel screams out the word of the benevolent God, even when this means going against all odds. Abraham clung to his truth despite the fact that the entire world was against him (He is called Abraham "HaIvri," which is interpreted to mean "the one on the other side," and the sages teach that he was on one side with his beliefs and the entire world was on the other).

Obviously a person does not have to pound his head against the wall. Even Ramban, who wrote about the religious obligation to settle the Land of Israel, did not try to lead a handful of Jews to conquer the land. It is well known that Bar Kokhba succeeded in causing substantial losses to the Roman army, to the point that the Caesar, in his letter to the Senate, refrained from expressing himself in the accepted manner of "All is well with my troops."

Success was definitely a possibility, especially if Rabbi Akiva himself said so. Certainly no less a possibility than it was for Hezekiah to defeat Sennacherib. It was a good and wise move to proclaim the establishment of the State of Israel, a decision that David ben Gurion managed to pass by a slim majority of one vote. The decisive question is one of priorities: success or virtue, career and wealth or the word of God. The Romans, in their fury at Bar Kokhba's revolt, sought to wipe it out completely. Their hopes, however, were to be dashed:

"The benediction 'Who is good and bestows good' was instituted in Yavneh with reference to those who were slain in Beitar. For R' Mattena said: On the day on which permission was given to bury those slain in Beitar, they ordained in Yavneh that 'Who is good and bestows good' should be said: 'Who is good', because they did not putrefy, and 'Who bestows good', because they were allowed to be buried." (Berachot 48b).

The Romans hoped that the Jewish corpses would rot, but they were to be disappointed. Somber and threatening, the corpses of Bar Kokhba's warriors remained wholly intact. The Roman "victors," astounded by their encounter with Jewish culture, converted in large numbers (see Avoda Zara 11b). One Roman historian wrote angrily that "never before had it happened that the vanquished were the victors." Truth always finds its way; virtue always emerges victorious, for it is thus decreed by God. "The word of God voiced by Rabbi Akiva was not in vain" (Rabbi Kook), the righteous Messiah shall indeed arise and usher in pure goodness, and the Holy Temple will be rebuilt.

Many thanks to Rabbi Yaakov Levanon. The essence of this article comes from a lesson I heard him deliver years ago and which has been etched in my heart ever since.
Some of the translated Talmudic and Midrashic sources in the above article were taken from, or based upon, Davka's Soncino Judaic Classics Library (CD-Rom).

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