Tales to Tell of Rabbi Akiva

I've never pushed my springtime Jewish observance past Passover to mess around with counting the omer during the forty-nine days that lead from peysakh to shvues (Shavuot). I have friends who do so and get all involved with kabbalistic associations with each day of the omer, associations involving the sefirot (mystical aspects of God), colors, personality traits, foods, and so on. But for me, the post-seder clean-up begins when the guests leave and doesn’t end until I head for Cape Cod in August. Like most faithless Jews, I tend to view Jewish holidays not as opportunities but as impositions — alas! — and so my personal Jewish calendar becomes a large, blissfully empty block between Nisan and Elul . . .

In other words, I won't be observing Lag B'Omer next week — how about you?

Judging from what I've read (If you really want to walk on the wild side, there's an interesting 'Jewish Messianic' take on the holiday at http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Scripture/Parashah/parashah.html), Lag B'Omer is actually an emotionally powerful observance, as it centers around the figure of Rabbi Akiva, one of the most compelling figures in Jewish history and lore. Lag B'Omer focuses on the end-days of his life — but for me, Akiva, it's his earlier days that have amazing appeal, as exemplified in three stories:

The first tells of his being forty years old and entirely untutored — until one day when he is standing by a stone well and wonders, Who cut a hole in this rock? Someone quotes to him a passage from the book of Job about water wearing away even stones, and Akiva thinks: If something so soft can cut something so hard, then surely the words of Jewish knowledge can engrave themselves on my heart. So he takes himself and his son to a teacher of little children and says, "My teacher, teach me Torah!" And he goes on from that humble state to devour knowledge, so that, as Avot DeRabbai Natan (a fabulous midrashic text) puts it, “Rabbi Akiva began to study Torah at age forty, and thirteen years later he was teaching Torah to crowds of people." And he was featured in People magazine, etcetera. Is this a cinematic story, or what?

Another of my favorite Akiva stories has him sleeping on straw with his new wife, who is the daughter of the richest man in town but has been disowned by him for marrying this ignoramus, Akiva, his former shepherd. "They were married in the winter," says the Talmud (Nedarim 50a), "and they used to sleep on straw."

Picking straw out of his hair, he said to her, "If only I had the money, I would buy you a Jerusalem of gold" (a tiara wrought in the shape of the city walls).

At that moment, Elijah the prophet came outside their gate, calling for straw. "My wife is about to give birth, and I have nothing for her to lie on."

Says Rabbi Akiva to his bride: "See — there is someone who doesn't even have straw."

Oh, my goodness . . .

In a third of my favorite Akiva stories, he approaches Rabbi Tarfon, who is wealthy but does not sufficiently give tsedoke. (This is the Rabbi Tarfon who famously said of social responsibility, "It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it." Hypocrite!) Akiva says: "My teacher, would you like me to purchase a city or two for you?"

Tarfon is enthusiastic and gives him 4,000 gold dinars — which Akiva goes and distributes tok the poor.

"A while later,” says the Talmudic tractate (Massechet Kallah), “Rabbi Tarfon found him and said: Where are the cities you purchased for me?"

Akiva brings him to the study house and opens the book of Psalms. They study together until they come to the verse, "If a person gives freely to the poor, his tsedoke will stand him in good stead forever." "This is the city I bought for you!" Akiva declares.

But Tarfon does not call his lawyers. Instead, he kisses Akiva on the head and says: "My teacher, my hero! My teacher in wisdom! My hero in the essences of Life!" And he gives Akiva more dinars to distribute.

(These passages are translated by Danny Siegel in his wonderful compendium, Where Heaven and Earth Touch. Nu, are you telling me that these stories wouldn't work just as well as the "Three Little Pigs" or "Cinderella" as beddy-bye or campfire tales? Jews, you have a wonderful folklore tradition!!)

It's too bad that as a relatively new blogger, I didn't think of counting the omer until today, twenty-five or thirty days in. Counting the omer by chattering my head off for 49 straight days would have been an interesting approach. Sitting down to write blogs, after all, is a kind of Jewish observance, for me, involving time and concentration and study and self-reflection and anxiety and at least some shards of inspiration — plus the prayer that there'll actually be readers!

So — if I hear from any of you, I'll tell more Akiva stories before Lag B'Omer...


Blogger Veg said...

Here's an article I co-wrote that relates to this blog:

Lag B'Omer and Vegetarianism:
Making Every Day Count



11:28 PM  

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