Sometimes, you encounter Jerusalem in absentia.
It happened to me once. I was walking through the Pantheon in Rome.
The ceiling curved above me, the gilded walls loomed all around me, and I knew that I was supposed to look up at that marvel of Roman architecture, and feel awed.
But I didn’t feel awe.
I didn’t feel admiration.
I looked at that beautiful building, and laughed.
The emperor who commissioned the Pantheon — Emperor Hadrian — ordered the execution of one of our greatest sages, Rabbi Akiva.
Rabbi Akiva supported Bar Kochva’s rebellion and the bid for Jewish independence.
Bar Kochva lost.
Rabbi Akiva was executed.
Or did he?
I looked around again at that glorious relic, that beautiful monument to Hadrian’s grandeur. And all I saw were dead stones and dusty, stale accomplishment. But when I closed my eyes I saw Jerusalem, where Rabbi Akiva’s heritage is still very much alive.
I saw children reciting the prayer “Sh’ma Israel” in their classrooms. Rabbi Akiva uttered the same prayer with his last breath. Jerusalem’s children are repeating it in the mornings, as they embark on new adventures and harbor new dreams.
I saw Poetry Slams where sophisticated young Jerusalemites mention Rabbi Akiva’s sayings, finding new meaning in his ancient words.
I saw young mothers inspiring their children to live by Rabbi Akiva’s edict that you should “love your friend as yourself, this is the most important rule in the Torah,” by taking them to volunteer in Jerusalem’s hospitals. I saw the same children giving up their seats on the bus to let a pregnant women sit comfortably. And I saw the same pregnant woman helping an elderly Russian-speaker step onto the curb.
I saw the descendants of Rabbi Akiva’s generation shopping for groceries in the shuk and eating falafel downtown and dancing in Safra Square on Independence Day.
I saw the dream of Jewish sovereignty, the very dream which Rabbi Akiva championed and died for, come to life.
The Roman empire crashed the Bar Kochva rebellion. But it didn’t crash the spirit that inspired it. It didn’t crash what Rabbi Akiva stood for in his life.
“Sorry, Hadrian,” I whispered to the gilded walls when I opened my eyes. “This building sure is nice, but you lost.”
And then I walked out of the Pantheon, humming “Na na banana” under my breath.
This post was first published on Jerusalem Moments.