Every Seder the legendary second century CE warrior Bar-Kochba features in the Haggadah incognito during the unusual and seemingly irrelevant tale of the five Rabbis sitting in Bnei Brak:
It once happened that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaryah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon were reclining in Bnei Brak. They were discussing the Exodus from Egypt all that night until their students came and said to them: “Our teachers, the time has arrived to read the morning Shema.“
The big question is why these leading scholars in Judea of the second century CE did not know that it was time for the morning Shema prayer? The simple answer is that they were hiding in a cave during the Roman persecution, which marked the culminating stages of the ill-fated Bar Kochba Revolt (132-135 CE).
Following the aftermath of the Bar Kochba rebellion, which followed hard on two other epic, but ultimately futile, attempts by the Jews to destroy the Romans by force of arms (the Great Revolt, 66-73CE and the Diaspora Revolt, 115-117CE), the Rabbis came to the realisation that the survival of Judaism would depend on the ability to study and pass down the traditions as opposed to physical resistance. The Rabbis felt that if the Jews continued to engage in these disastrous wars with their resulting heavy losses, the outcome might be the decimation of the Jews and ultimately Judaism itself. To this end they downplayed the revolt, “demilitarised” the Talmud and emphasised that Messianic redemption would be achieved by merit of Torah study and not by military might. This remained the predominant Jewish philosophy until the modern age.
Despite the rabbinic tradition’s tendency to gloss over the revolt, early Zionism eagerly seized on the story as proof that Jews, when faced with persecution, were capable of fighting for their dignity and self-respect. Max Nordau (1849-1923), an early popular Zionist leader, writing an essay about “Muscle-Jews,” stated that: “Bar Kochba was the last embodiment in world history of a bellicose, militant Jewry.” Many Zionist sports clubs that sprang up in the inter-war years in Europe were named Bar Kochba, in honour of the legendary hero who symbolised the “new Jew,” the antithesis of the weak Diaspora Jew, constantly fleeing persecution, as portrayed scornfully by Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934) in his epic poem, “In the City of Slaughter.”
The story of the Bar Kochba Revolt came to symbolise the hope that, as the Jews returned to their homeland, they would be able to regain their honour by reclaiming their land, their language and the ability to defend themselves.
Yigal Yadin, who as a representative of the new Jewish State and a general in the new Jewish army, symbolically uncovered the words of the last Jewish General in the Land of Israel, almost as if they had been waiting to be reclaimed by their spiritual descendants, wrote:
“It was centuries of persecution of the Jews and their yearning for national rehabilitation that turned Bar Kochba into a people’s hero, an elusive figure who they clung to because he had demonstrated, and was the last to demonstrate, that Jews could fight to win Jewish and political independence.”
That is why it is relevant and important to have Bar Kochba as a role-model for the importance of freedom on the “Festival of Freedom” as we prepare to celebrate Israel’s sixty-fifth Independence Day.
My “Amazing Israel” Taglit-Birthright group at the entrance to a Bar Kochba Period cave system at Tel-Goded