Jonathan Muskat

Rabbi Akiva and Theodor Herzl: Redemption Then, Redemption Now

Wouldn’t you like to be a fly on the wall at that fateful Seder almost 2000 years ago, that Seder in Bnei Brak with the five leading Torah personalities of the generation?  I can imagine Rabbi Akiva about to begin reciting Kiddush, when the young Nasi Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah turns to Rabbi Akiva and says, “Looking forward to spending a Seder with you, but just make sure that we wrap up this whole Seder by midnight.”  And I can imagine Rabbi Akiva responding, “I know you’re only eighteen years old, but really?  Your curfew is at midnight?  Why stop then?  We can celebrate the Seder all night long!”

Indeed, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah and Rabbi Akiva disagree as to how long the Seder should last and how much time we have to eat matza and the korban Pesach. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah believes that we must finish eating the Korban Pesach by midnight and Rabbi Akiva believes that we may continue until morning.  The Gemara in Brachot states that the debate is based on a textual question.  The Torah states that the Bnei Yisrael are to eat the korban Pesach in haste.  Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah assumes that this refers to the haste of the Egyptians, when they hurried at midnight to send the Bnei Yisrael from Egypt, whereas Rabbi Akiva assumes that this refers to the haste of the Bnei Yisrael in the morning as they rushed to leave Egypt.

However, Rav Yaakov Medan explained that the debate between these two Torah scholars is actually about how to define the redemption of Egypt.  Is redemption something that God did, or is redemption something that we must achieve for ourselves?  According to Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, when God punished the firstborns as the final straw to convince Pharaoh to allow us to leave, redemption was achieved. However, according to Rabbi Akiva, redemption is only achieved when we are involved and when we actually do something.

I would argue even further that according to Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, the Seder night is fundamentally a night when we express our gratitude to God for what He did for us.  We have a responsibility to be faithful to God and to His Torah and have faith that God will perform whatever miracles are necessary to bring about the final redemption.  However, according to Rabbi Akiva, the Seder night is a call to arms, challenging us to recognize our role when we partnered with God to bring about the redemption.  For Rabbi Akiva, the Seder night is a time when we recognize that we are masters of our own national destiny.  Furthermore, Rabbi Akiva took this lesson to heart as he was the spiritual leader of the Bar Kochba revolt.  After it was crushed, Rabbi Akiva ensured the continuation of our mesorah by giving semicha to a whole new group of students.  And it was Rabbi Akiva’s view that ultimately carried the day, as the Rabbis did not stop celebrating at midnight but they continued all night long.

Almost 1,900 years after the Seder in Bnei Brak, a young Jew thought the solution to the Jewish problem was through assimilation, but soon he came to the realization that assimilation wasn’t the answer.  This young man realized it wasn’t the answer because he rediscovered his roots while attending a Seder service.  This is how Theodor Herzl describes the Seder:

“As so the ritual went on, half religious ceremony and half family meal, moving for anyone who had a heart to be moved by ancient custom.  For this most Jewish of Jewish festivals reached back farther into ancient times than any living customs of the civilized world.  It was celebrated now, exactly as it had been observed for hundreds and hundreds of years.  The world had changed, nations had vanished from the face of the earth, others had made their way into the annals of history… and only this one nation was still here, cherishing its ancient customs, true to itself, remembering the sufferings of its ancestors.  It still prays in the ancient language and the ancient formulas to the Eternal God, this nation of slaves and now of free men – Israel.”

And it was then, at one Seder at the end of the 19th century, that Herzl heard the call of the Seder, as R. Akiva did almost 2,000 years before, a call to action.  And with that, a return to Zion began.  How many of us see the Seder as a call to action?  How many of us feel a sense of responsibility to our collective destiny, instead of blaming all of our problems on “them,” whether the “them” refers to the Charedim, the Rabbis, the reform Jews, the unaffiliated Jews, or whoever “them” represents in our lives?  This coming Seder night, as we retell the story of the Seder in Bnei Brak, may we all be inspired by Rabbi Akiva’s call.  And let us each resolve to partner with God, using our God-given talents, to bring about the redemption that we so desperately crave.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.