Avot Highlights, Chapter Three: R. Akiva of Avot

As I showed last week, some of a person’s legacy “sticks,” becomes well-known, and other parts don’t. Let’s see how Avot portrays another fabled leader of Jewish learning, R. Akiva.

He seems to me most famous for the story of his wife insisting, as a condition of the marriage, that he devote himself to study, for even longer than he had planned.  Then, the story of the death of his students, which led to the observances of the Omer in which we are all immersed, his then training five more students, who became the foundation of Torah in that time.

The sayings gathered in Avot seem to me an avenue to more detail in our understanding of him.

Good Safeguards Make Good Religious People

In chapter three, Mishnah 13, we get our first taste. R. Akiva says:

Laughter and levity accustom a person to licentiousness; the tradition of how to read and write the Torah safeguards its text; tithes safeguard wealth; vows safeguard abstemiousness; a safeguard for wisdom is staying silent.

At first glance—and we’ll have to see how this fits in the flow of all four Mishnayot devoted to his ideas—he seems concerned with the care we have to take to cultivate safety and security.  We can open ourselves to sexual impropriety even by engaging in laughter and levity (he does not seem to mean to prohibit any levity, just that we be aware that it makes us more relaxed, looser, less on top of ourselves in avoiding that).

Then he gives us ways to avoid certain ills and maintain that which is good.  We need to avoid losing the text of Torah, we want to keep our wealth, we want to remind ourselves to avoid overindulgence, and we want to maintain our wisdom. There is a way, but we have to take it.

The overall thrust seems to me to be that life presents us with challenges in holding on to what’s good and avoiding what’s bad. His first strategy is to urge us to install safeguards, so that we don’t go the wrong way.

The Benefit of Knowing How Special We Are

Mishnah 14 speaks of three ways in which our lot was already good and became better by virtue of Hashem informing us of it.  First, all humanity is dear to Hashem in that we were all created in the image of Hashem.  Then Hashem told Noach this was so, in Bereshit 9;6.

That step was for all people.  A step further is for the Jews, who are referred to as children of Hashem and told (Devarim 14:1) that that’s how Hashem refers to us.  We were also given the Torah, which Hashem considers a כלי חמדה, a precious tool or container.  More than that, Hashem told us (Mishlei 4;2) of its’ preciousness.

There’s nuances to each clause, but the basic point seems to be that not only are we special, as humans and as Jews, not only are we told that we’re special, but we as Jews have been given the tool to actualize that to the fullest.  R. Akiva here has reminded us of how to find out how to serve Hashem, as well as given us a lesson about our own relationships, that it’s good to love, but it’s better to tell those we love of that.

Fate and Freewill

The next Mishnah says all is seen, permission is given, the world is judged for the good, and all is according to רוב המעשה. Depending on whether we read “rov” as “the majority” or “the abundance,” this last clause means either that Hashem judges us based on the majority of our actions, or that the more merits we accrue, the more reward we get. (We could imagine an upper limit, but the Mishnah tells us it’s not so).

Commentators generally assume “all is seen and permission is given” is a reference to the tension between God’s omniscience and freewill. If so, R. Akiva invites us to consider this age-old question.  I don’t have the space here to do so (I did in the longer version of this essay that I email to whoever asks).  What we can say is that the Mishnah shows that R. Akiva was interested in reminding us of freewill, omniscience, and the necessity of being judged, with an eye towards a favorable judgment and with unlimited potential for positive judgment.

Reward and Punishment

The last of the “Rabbi Akiva Mishnayot” stresses that life comes with conditions and expectations. If we fail to meet those, the retribution isn’t immediate; that’s the metaphor of a store extending credit, but we should expect to pay the bill later. There are no free zones where we can contravene Hashem’s Will and it will not be recorded.  That return payment happens all the time, R. Akiva says (meaning, I think, that we shouldn’t assume that we’re untouched by Divine retribution until the next world), whether we want it to or not, but always truthfully, always responding to our actions.

The Rabbi Akiva of Avot

Like last week, Avot gives us a different picture of a major rabbinic figure than I think most of us know of.  He is concerned with finding ways to ensure a well-lived life, and suggests the appropriate use of safeguards; awareness and appreciation of how fortunate we are in our relationship with Hashem, and the remarkable tool (Torah) Hashem gave us for taking advantage of that relationship; an understanding of the difference between freedom and immunity, that our actions are all seen, recorded, and will be appropriately rewarded or punished.

Could it be that a man who did not enter serious study until he was forty, who then threw himself into it with a single-mindedness most of us can’t approach, would be more aware than most of us both of how wonderful the gift is that he took possession of only late in life and, in its preciousness, how much care we have to take with it?  Those of us blessed to have entered the world of Torah younger than R. Akiva should echo his sentiments all the more.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.