Sign In Forgot Password

Tazria 5779 - The Morning Shema with Zecharia Baumel

04/10/2019 12:18:20 PM


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

This week I had the honor of writing column 213/248 in the Torah.  This passage contains the holy passage of Shema Yisrael.  As I wrote the words of Shema, my heart trembled as I thought of all the souls that had uttered these words at the most precious and perilous moments of life.  I thought of all the parents that recited these words with their children as they said good night.  I thought of all the children that recited these words with their parents during their final moments of life.  

I thought of R. Eliezer Silver who, according to legend, went to Europe in 1945 after the Holocaust and was trying to locate those Jewish children who were hidden during the war.  When he would see a child he would recite, Shema Yisrael and if he noticed a tear coming down their cheeks then he knew it reminded them of when their parents would recite Shema with them before they were murdered.

I also thought of the holy Rabbi Akiva who recited these words as he was being executed al Kiddush Hashem by the Romans during the Hadrianic persecutions! 

The Talmud tells us that as Rabbi Akiva was being brought out to be executed it was the time to recite Shema (zeman keriat shema hayah).  As the Romans were combing his flesh with iron combs, Rabbi Akiva was rejoicing over the fact that he now was able to fulfill the words of Shema of serving God, bekhol nafshekha, with all your soul (Berakhot, 62b).

In his book, The Sages, R. Binyamin Lau notes that there is much discussion regarding why the Talmud felt it necessary to state, “it was the time to recite Shema” (vol. 2, 363). He argues that it is an indication that in moments of darkness we are able to use the power of ritual to lift us above the harsh physical reality and embrace the spiritual.

As we come near to the holiday of Pesach we can compare this passage of Rabbi Akiva and Shema with a passage from the Haggadah that also mentions Rabbi Akiva and Shema.

The Haggadah says:

Maaseh! There was an incident with Rebbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rebbe Elazar b. Azariah, R. Akiva, and R. Tarfon who were celebrating the Seder in Bnei Brak.  They were telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt all night long, until their students interrupted them and said to them: ‘Our teachers, the time for the morning Shema has arrived, hegiah zeman keriat shema shel shacharit’”.

The former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Israel Meir Lau (The uncle of R. Binyamin Lau) discusses this passage in his Haggadah and raises several questions:

1) R. Akiva was the one amongst the group who lived in Bnei Brak.  He was also the youngest member of the group.  Why were all these rabbis travelling to spend the holiday specifically with him?  Indeed, Rabbi Eliezer taught that one is not supposed to leave his family for the holiday (Sukkah, 27)!  So why were they all spending Pesach with R. Akiva in Bnei Brak?

2) Why were the students not included in the discussion?  Aren’t teachers supposed to be included in the teaching on Seder night?

3) What is the significance of the students interrupting their teachers in this abrupt manner by stating that the time for morning Shema has arrived?

R. Lau suggests that this incident was taking place in the days leading up to the Bar Kochba rebellion in 132 CE.  Hadrian planned to turn Jerusalem into a pagan city and to ban circumcision.  In response a revolt was led by Bar Koziba, who R. Akiva called Bar Kochva, and considered the messiah.

R. Akiva was a strong supporter of Bar Kochba, but the other rabbis were less supportive.  R. Lau imagines that that night these great sages were debating the merits of whether or not to support this very dangerous rebellion.  They felt that the horrific persecutions left them no choice but to go to battle.  But they were deeply worried.  They knew many of their students would die as a result of their decision.  They knew the odds were very much against them.  The sages couldn’t commit to a decision that they knew would endanger their students. They were discussing and discussing and discussing…. But then their students burst into the room and said, “Enough discussion.  It is time for action.  The time has come for morning Shema.”  

Shema represents a willingness to risk their lives for a cause they believed in.  And morning represents the dawn of redemption.  The students were saying to their teachers, “Don’t worry about us!  We are willing to risk our lives for this important cause.  We will take our inspiration from the Pesach redemption story and we will fight for a cause we believe in.”

According to this interpretation this passage is included in the Haggadah because it is a revolution story.  Like in the Exodus story, the Jews were willing to rise up against an oppressor in the name of religious freedom and freedom from tyranny.

But there is one crucial difference.  Unlike the Exodus story, which ends in success, the Bar Kochba story ends in absolute destruction.  Scholars estimate that close to 600,000 Jews died in this revolt and the Talmud describes rivers of blood flowing forth after the fall of Beitar (Jerusalem Talmud, Taanit 4:5).

Indeed, the Bar Kochba story is the story of a failed messiah.

As Maimonides writes (without an obvious source):

R. Akiva was the right hand man to King Ben Koziba and would describe him as the King Messiah.  He and all the sages of his generation considered him to be the King Messiah until he was killed because of his sins.  Once he was killed they realized that he was not the Messiah” (Mishneh Torah, The Laws of Kings 11:3; cited and translated by Lau, p. 344).

So if this passage references the disastrous Bar Kochba revolt why is it included on our telling the story of the Exodus on Seder night?  Isn’t Seder supposed to be a celebration of our successes?

There are two opposite ways we can answer this question.

One approach may be to suggest that it is a cautionary warning about revolutions.  Many people throughout history have been inspired by the Exodus story and perhaps the Haggadah here is specifically warning us about the consequences of a reckless rebellion.  We need to know what is at stake with a revolution before we get involved.

But there is another approach, which is saying the exact opposite message –maybe the Haggadah is telling us not to be afraid to fail.  Just because the Bar Kochba story ended in complete disaster doesn’t mean that we should always be afraid to try something bold again in the future.  Maybe this story is included because we are saying that even in their physical defeat they had a momentary freedom—and that momentary freedom is also a redemption.

This approach is hinted to by the very next line of the Haggadah, which states, “Amar Rebbe Elazar b Azaria: Harei ani ke-ven shivim shanna, behold I am like 70 years old.”

Why does he say, behold I am like I am 70?

This line of the Haggadah is lifted from a story in the Talmud (Berakhot, 27b).

The backstory to this line is that sages of the academy were debating whether or not it was an obligation to recite the maariv prayer.  Rabban Gamliel, the head of the academy ruled that it was obligatory, whereas R. Yehoshua, ruled that it was discretionary.    A student –Rabbi Shmimon b Yochai –reported to R. Gamliel that R. Yehoshua was issuing rulings that were going against him.  That led to R. Gamliel embarrassing R. Yehoshua by making him stand for the entire lecture.  

This was not the first time that R. Gamliel embarrassed R. Yehoshua, but this was the last time.  The students of the academy had enough.  So they rose up and deposed R. Gamliel.   

But having removed R. Gamliel they had a problem as to whom they would appoint in his place.  They disqualified other candidates and were left with R. Elazar b. Azariah as the most logical choice.  So they invited him to head the academy.

R. Elazar b. Azariah said that he needed to go home and consult with his wife.

His wife said the following to him:

Dilma mevarin lakh: maybe they will get rid of you in the end, just like they got rid of R. Gamliel.

He responded: lishtamesh inash yoma chada bekasa demokrah u-lemachar litbar, let a person use an expensive goblet one day and the next day it will break.

She said: you don’t have any white hair—i.e. you are too young for the job.  That night a miracle happened for him and 18 rows of his hair turned white.  

Says the Talmud, this is why R. Elazar b. Azariah said, “Behold I am like one who is 70 years old, and did not say, I am 70 years old.”

In the end, R. Elazar’s wife was mostly correct in that R. Gamliel apologized to R. Yehoshua and they ended up restoring R. Gamliel to his position 3 out of 4 weeks a month.  

But I am most intrigued by R. Elazar’s response to his wife’s first point—“maybe they will replace you also”:

His wife was saying to him why bother with this, it might not last.  And R. Elazar responded whether or not it lasts is not the point: “Let a person use an expensive goblet one day and the next day it will break.”  

In essence he was saying: We are not going to live our life in fear of breaking an expensive goblet, for even if it will eventually break at least we will have those special moments of glory before it breaks.

We are preconditioned to imagine that redemption is only successful if we know it will be successful and if in the end it will look like the Exodus redemption where we arrived at Sinai and then entered into the land of Canaan.

But the point of his response is that acting even though we might fail is also a redemption--taking a chance and achieving a momentary redemption is still a redemption.

Of course, don’t be reckless!  But after careful preparations do use the expensive glass.  Don’t keep it hidden away.  Sure it might break.  But at least you got to use it!

One last interpretation of why the students said that the time for Shema of the morning has arrived.

I heard in the name of the Lubavitcher Rebbe that the point was that “the entire night” symbolizes the long exile of the Jewish people.  The students came and said to their teachers that the morning Shema has arrived.  I doing so they were telling their teachers not to despair from the exile, not to focus on the exile but to remember that we can turn the exile into morning.  We can change the darkness into dawn!

The exile seems dark but if we seek out momentary moments of redemption then indeed we can turn it into a day.

When I think of a momentary redemption I think of a story that Rabbi Seth Mandel told at a pro-Israel march on Washington in 2002, a few days after Rabbi Mandel’s son Koby was murdered at the age of 13 in a cave by a terrorist.  

Rabbi Mandel told a story that happened at the bombing of the Sbarro pizza store in Jerusalem which murdered 15 people, including five members of a Dutch family, one of whom was a four-year-old boy named Avraham Yitzchak.

As Avraham Yitzchak lay wounded and dying his father reached out to him and they said Shema together.

Rabbi Mandel then told the crowd, I never got to say Shema with Koby.  Will you join me in reciting Shema together?  And the crowd of over 200,000 lifted our hands and said Shema.  

That to me is a momentary moment of redemption.

This week there was another momentary moment of redemption.  Zacharia Baumel’s body which was missing for 37 years was finally brought home and given a Jewish burial.  I will never forget the time I heard his mother Miriam speak and say that not knowing her son’s status was worse than knowing him to be dead.  Finally, this week his mother achieved closure. 

Zacharia Baumel never got to recite Shema with his mother.  But we can all do that now as a community in his memory – please join me in reciting Shema in memory of Zecharia!

Wed, May 27 2020 4 Sivan 5780