Rabbi Akiva – Part 2
Rabbi Yaakov Haber
“Everything is forseen (Hakol
Tzofooe), yet the freedom of choice is given. The world is judged with
goodness, and everything depends on the abundance of good deeds.” 3:19
The Gemorah tells us more
about Rabbi Akiva than any other person.
Since the purpose of the Gemorah is to teach us – not just to tell us
history or stories – then this means there is a tremendous amount to learn from
Rabbi Akiva’s life and from what he said.
In the previous two Mishnahs,
Rabbi Akiva first talked about fences that we need to erect to protect us from
things that are harmful. That is ‘Sur
mei rah’. The next Mishnah talked about
the three levels that Hashem bestowed gifts to mankind: to all people, to Jews,
and to Talmidei Chachimim. That
represents ‘Osei Tov’.
It’s important that people
first do ‘Sur mei rah’ before “Osei tov’, because they have to first remove
themselves from what is bad before they can attach themselves to what is
good. To give an analogy, let’s say that
a farmer was going to get married, and he went to a tailor for a suit. The tailor said, “I have four ready-made
suits that are your size, you can go in the back and try them on.” After an hour, the tailor went in the back,
wondering what was taking so long. The farmer
said, “I’ve been trying on the four suits, but they don’t seem to fit”. The tailor said, “That’s because you first
have to take off your sheepskin coat.”
It’s very tempting for people
to first try to do the Osey Tov – to join Kabbalah centers to reach the highest
levels – but they forget that they first have to separate themselves from that
which is negative, which is “Sur Mei Ra”.
It’s interesting that the
second Mishnah outlines the three levels of Rabbi Akiva. He is a descendent of Sisera Harasha. Even though Sisera was a Rasha, he was a
human being, and I believe that all Poskim
poskin that everyone is created Betzelem Elokim, in the image of G-d,
and deserve respect as such. At the next
level, Rabbi Akvia’s father was a Ger, and that made Rabbi Akiva a Jew, which
is the second category of the Mishnah.
And then of course Rabbi Akiva was a Talmud Chachum, the third level of
Many of the Mishnahs in
Pirkei begin: Hu Haya Omair, “He used to say”.
The Malbim (?) says that this means “He was…and that is why he
said”. This saying represents a
fundamental teaching because of who he was, and this is something he was known
to say often.
Our Mishnah deals with a
problem that people have struggled with for thousands of years. Hashem knows everything that will
happen. Then why doesn’t that imply that
everything we do is predetermined? Why
aren’t we are like wind-up robots just doing what Hashem knows we are going to
do, just doing what He programmed into us? Rabbi Akiva says that even though
Hashem knows we will do, that doesn’t take at all away from our Bechira,
free-choice. We are responsible and held
accountable for everything we do. This
is a paradox, and even though it’s very difficult to understand, Rabbi Akiva
says that both sides of the equation are true.
The Rambam says on this
Mishnah, “It is very fitting that Rabbi Akiva said this. Hakol Tzofooe (he uses the same language as
Rabbi Akiva) by Hashem, yet we are responsible for our every action, and there
is Schar ve Onesh, reward and punishment, as a result of all of our actions.”
Yigal, that we say every
morning, summarizes the 13 principles of faith of the Rambam. Two of its verses
deal directly with this:
“He scrutinizes and knows our
hidden most secrets; He perceives a matter’s outcome at its inception.
He recompenses man with
kindness according to his deed, He places evil on the wicked according to his
The Rambam says that it was
fitting that Rabbi Akiva said this is because one of the hallmarks of Rabbi Akiva
is that he can embrace both sides of this seemingly contradictory paradox. He can see things from Hashem’s point of view
– that Hashem knows everything that we will do.
And at the same time Rabbi Akiva can see things from our point of view,
and this means we have total bechira, free will, and therefore there is reward
and punishment for all our actions.
I’ll give an example of where
this duality comes into play. Let’s say
a person makes $100,000 a year, and he wants to give his $10,000 as Maiser. One option is that on Erev Rosh Hashana he can
write a check for $10,000, close his eyes, give it to someone who gives out
Tzadakah, and say, “Give this money out to those who need it.” Or he could give out one dollar to each of
the people who come to his door during the year, also giving out the same
$10,000. Let’s say a person comes to the
door saying that he’s making a Chasunah for his daughter, and he gives him a
dollar. The person responds, “Do you
know how much it costs to make a Chasunah?” Another person says he needs
special dental work for his son, and he gives him a dollar. The Rambam gives a clear psak on this
question. He says that it’s better to give the dollar 10,000 times – 30 times a
day - than it is to give it all at once.
Why? Because every time we give
tzadakah it changes us for the better.
It this case there is also a
dialectic between Hashem’s point of view and our point of view. Hashem may see that it may have be more
effective if we give a few strategically placed gifts to those who need it the
most. Let’s say a person has a large
debt that is driving him and his family mad, and a large gift can have an
enormous effect to take off the pressure he is under. From Shamayim’s perspective, this may be a
more effective use of the money. But
from our point of view, our task is with changing ourselves – as our Mishnah
says, “everything depends on the abundance of good deeds” – and therefore, we
should give the small amount of Tzadakah many times because it maximizes the
extent to which we can improve ourselves..
We have to recognize Hashem’s
point of view. But we have to act
according to our point of view. This is
similar to the fact that although Hashem knows everything that will happen,
from our point of view we have free will, and we must act accordingly.
Our Mishnah, as well as the
Rambam and Yigdol, uses a form of the word Tzofeh, which means to see from a
very high perspective. What does Tzofeh
mean, as opposed to Roeh, another word that also means ‘to see’? Let’s say that you’re on top of a very tall
mountain, and you see two armies ready to confront each other in battle. You can see one group of soldiers hiding
behind some trees and hills preparing for an ambush, and another group ready to
stumble into the trap. This doesn’t detract from that fact that both groups
have free will. From your ‘helicopter’
viewpoint, you can see what will happen.
But they are still free to do whatever they choose.
The end of Makkos tells about
two events where Rabbi Gamliel, Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah, Rabbi Yehoshua, and
Rabbi Akiva were together. Both events took place after the destruction of the
Bais Makidosh. Rabbi Akiva was 68 when the Churban happened. In the first story in Makkos, the group heard
a loud celebration in Aram which was 120 mil away. Aram is where the Tigris and the Euphrates
meet, which may be Iraq. The four Rabbis
began to cry. But then Rabbi Akiva laughed. They asked him why he was laughing, and he
responded, Why are you crying? They
answered, “These are idol worshippers who have peace in their land, yet the
Holy Temple that served as Hashem’s footstool has gone up in flames.”
Rabbi Akiva responded, “If
such is the portion of those who transgress Hashem’s will, how much greater
will be the portion of those who perform His will.”
(It’s important to note that
according to the version in Pirkei de Rabbi Nosson, Rabbi Akiva was first
crying with the others, and then began laughing).
From the Jew’s point of view
on earth at that time, there had been a tremendous amount of destruction and
murder. Rabbi Akiva recognized that, and
he cried with the others. But he also
saw things from Hashem’s point of view.
As Rabbi Akiva says, all is for the good, and as his teacher Nachum ish
Gamzu says, ‘All is good.” Rabbi Akiva
was able to embrace both viewpoints at the same time, as contradictory as they
The Gemorah in Makkos
continues, telling us that the same group was traveling to Yerushalayim. They reached Har Tzofim (note the same word
that Rabbi Akiva used in the Mishnah – Tzafua) where the Temple Mount can be
seen. They tore their garments in
mourning. When they reached the Temple
Mount, they saw a fox leaving the area where the Kodosh Kodoshim once
stood. They all cried. Then Rabbi Akiva laughed. Why do you laugh, they asked him. They said,
“Any outsider who would go there would be Chayiv Misah, and now foxes wander
"This is why I
laugh," Rabbi Akiva answered. "For Isaiah says he brings two
witnesses, Uriah from who prophesied that the first Churban was coming, and
Zechariah who prophesied that people will again live in Yerushalayim. When I
saw the first prophecy come true, I knew that the second prophesy would also
With these words the sages
responded to Rabbi Akiva: "Akiva, you have comforted us; Akiva, you have
The key point is that Rabbi
Akiva is able to cry and laugh at the same time. He can cry because he can see tragedy from
man’s viewpoint, and he can laugh because he can see the big picture from
I’ve found seven times in the
Gemorah when it says that Rabbi Akiva laughed.
Another incident is in
Gittin. Rabbi Akiva often talked with
Turnus Rufus who was the Roman General in charge of Eretz Yisroel. The wife of Turnus Rufus vowed to trap Rabbi
Akiva. The Gemorah says that when Rabbi
Akiva saw her, he spat, laughed, and cried. The Gemorah says that he spat when
he realized the lowly source of her beauty, he laughed when he saw that she was
destined to become a Ger Tzedek and become his wife after Rochel died, and he
cried when he saw the grave that would lay claim to her beauty.
In this story, also, we see
that Rabbi Akiva is able to encompass contradictory emotions and thoughts at
the same time. He can cry and laugh at
the same time, just as we saw in our Mishnah that he can simultaneously see
contradictory perspectives from both Hashem’s and Man’s viewpoints.
This ability of Rabbi Akiva
may account for the outcome of the story told in Chagiga. It says that four people entered the Pardes –
Ben Zoma, Ben Azzai, Alisha Ben Avuya, and Rabbi Akiva. One died, and one went crazy. Alisha ben Avuya went off the derech. But Rabbi Akiva entered in Shalom, and went
out in Shalom. According to the Arizal,
the Pardes refers to a mystical spiritual realm, full of paradoxes and seeming
contradictions. Rabbi Akiva was able to
embrace the contradictions, and come out whole.
Alisha ben Avuya, on the
other hand, could not span these contradictions. The Gemorah says that he ‘cut the roots of
the saplings’, the metaphorical trees that go from the earth to Shamayim. He could not see the connection between what
happens in this world – with the tremendous destruction happening at the time –
and connect it to make sense from Shamayim’s perspective. So he took his large shears, and cut the
connection, and went off the derech.
We’ve seen previously that
Rabbi Meir climbed all the way up into the perspective of Shamayim, before any
contradictions occur. That was how he
was able to learn from Alisha ben Avuya, because he saw things from a viewpoint
before dichotomies occur between good and bad.
But the Gemorah says that his colleagues did not understand Rabbi Meir,
and the Hallachah is not like him.
Rabbi Akiva was no stranger
to tragedy. He witnessed the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh and the murder
of countless Jews. His 24,000 followers
died. His son died in his lifetime. His
saw Bar Chochba – his Moshiach – die along with so many others in Betar.
But Rabbi Akiva was able to
laugh and cry at the same time. He could see that from man’s perspective we
have free will, and yet from Hashem’s perspective everything is known. Rabbi Akiva has the emotional and
intellectual breadth to be Shalame and see the truths of both sides of a
paradox. That is why the Hallachah is according to Rabbi Akiva.
In the Gemorah in Gittin,
Rabbi Akiva criticizes Yochanan Ben Zakai for having given up Yerushalayim.
Rabbi Akvia quotes Yeshayahu, “He turns back wise men and makes their knowledge
into foolishness”. When Rabbi Yochanan
Ben Zakai worked out the deal with Vespation of “give me Yavne with its
Chochomim”, the Gemorah says that he was “Yoshev ve Metzafeh”, he was sitting
and waiting for the Bais Hamikdosh to be destroyed. It’s interesting that it uses the same root
of the word Tzofeh, which represents Hashem’s point of view. Rabbi Akiva is implying that he wasn’t
sufficiently taking into account man’s point of view, to take into
consideration the tragedy and destruction that was about to occur.
The Gemorah later recounts
that Yochanon ben Zakai on his deathbed was crying. He said, “I see I have two
paths in front of me – Gehenim and Gan Eden - and I don’t know which way I am
heading.” He was crying.
As we’ve seen Rabbi Akiva was
able to cry and laugh at the same time.
Rabbi Akiva died with the Romans raking his flesh with hot combs. He responded by saying, “Shema Yisroel,
Hashem Elokaynu, Hashem Echod”, with the Echod being extended. For Rabbi Akvia,
Echod, ‘One’, was always extended. He could synthesize the seemingly
contradictory sides of a paradox. He could cry and laugh simultaneously. That is why in our Mishnah, he is able to see
that from Hashem’s perspective, all is known.
At the same time, from Man’s perspective we have free will and are
responsible in terms of Schar ve Onesh, reward and punishment, for all of our