Faigie Heiman
Sixty years in Jerusalem

Rabbi Akiva laughed then: Would he laugh today?

“Love your fellow man as yourself; What is mine is yours, and yours is yours” a song we sang aloud and danced to every Shabbat in the youth group I attended as a child growing up in Brooklyn. I don’t think any of the girls in the group paid much attention to Rabbi Akiva’s message of love for friends and neighbors, and the act of giving. The cheerful tune and quick beat to the song and dance was the fun part for the group.

As a teenager, the legacy of Rabbi Akiva and his beloved Rachel made a lasting impression; the story of the simple shepherd who fell in love with the beautiful daughter of the wealthiest man in town, is the story that dreams are made of.

As young newlyweds in 1960, my husband and I spent many Shabbatot in Bnei Brak, the place famous due to the legendary Rabbi Akiva, his colleagues, and their students who spent Seder night learning there. Today this once-small suburb of Tel Aviv has grown to be a sprawling bastion of Torah study in a religiously observant city.

Every year, during sefirat haomer, and particularly during the month of Iyar, the stories of Rabbi Akiva recur: his 24,000 students who perished in a plague; and of the Jerusalem of Gold crown that Rabbi Akiva gave his beloved wife Rachel.

Sadly, last week, erev Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh Iyar, I woke to the tragic news of Rabbi Yeshaya Haber’s passing. Rabbi Haber was a kidney transplant recipient who, out of gratitude to his donor, and in recognition of the difficulty finding voluntary organ donors, founded the Matnat Chaim organization 10 years ago — an organization that is all about Rabbi Akiva’s, “sheli shelach, shelach shelach … What is mine, is yours, and yours is yours.”

I never met Rabbi Haber; I never spoke to him. Matnat Chaim did not exist when I needed the organization, yet I fully identify with, and have total admiration for Rabbi Haber’s outstanding work. I have tremendous gratitude for what he accomplished in order to help anyone in need of a transplant.

The possibility of finding a donor 20 years ago was almost nil for my husband, z”l, who needed a kidney. Yet when our son heard that his father suffered imminent renal failure, he said: “If Abba needs a kidney, he can have one of mine!”

Twenty years ago, a potential organ donor was advised not to do it, not to donate. For many, it was alarming to hear about a father accepting an organ from a son. In 2001, kidney donors were rare. Israelis flew to Third World countries, paid huge sums to intermediate agents, and received organs from non-altruistic donors in dire need of funds.

It wasn’t physical pain that I sensed throughout the many months leading up to our son-father transplant. It was mental anguish that I suffered, knowing my husband and son would be undergoing simultaneous surgeries, success uncertain. I was in a panic over possible error, like removing the wrong organ. I did not trust anyone and, except for Dr. David Applebaum, hy”d, who was with us throughout, there was no organized support. None like that of Rabbi Haber’s Matnat Chaim that he started 10 years after our transplant experience, where he personally assisted some 800 transplant donors and recipients.

So there I was, Friday morning, Rosh Chodesh Iyar, the 16th day of counting the Omer, mourning Rabbi Haber’s death caused by the corona virus; remembering my husband who passed away 16 years after receiving a kidney from his son, due to a streptococcus bug that invaded his system and caused his collapse, and passing; and at the same time, remembering the great scholar, Rabbi Akiva, about whom the Talmud tells the story that has given Jews hope for our ultimate redemption over the millennia.

Rabbi Akiva was with his fellow rabbis on Har Hatzofim when they saw a fox strolling out of the Holy of Holies. While the rabbis wept at the sight of the fox, for the destruction and desecration of the Temple, Rabbi Akiva laughed. Rabbi Akiva laughed, knowing that if one prophecy came to be — the destruction and desecration of the Temple — then the prophecy of Zecharia — that Jerusalem would be returned to her former glory; that old men and women would once again sit in her streets, while children filled the streets with laughter and play —would also come to be.

We are a generation that has merited to witness Zecharia’s prophecy of old men and women sitting on benches in the streets of Jerusalem. I personally enjoyed summer afternoons sitting in the garden with my mother in the assisted living residence where she lived until the age of 104, observing children playing, kicking balls, laughing and enjoying games at her feet.

Today, we Israelis, celebrating 72 years of independence, have witnessed the coronavirus pandemic spread through our cities, emptying our streets and roads, sending our children indoors, and causing too many families to mourn lost loved ones. Old and young, we are locked in.

I wondered, would Rabbi Akiva have laughed at this coronavirus pandemic? Would he have been able to tell us that one day we will benefit from this plague?

While speculating about Rabbi Akiva’s reaction, I opened an email invitation to a family wedding, to be held that afternoon, erev Shabbat at 2 p.m., on Zoom. Eighty-six excited participants, including family in the U.S. showed up to the wedding, boxed in on computer screens, waving to one another, waiting for the chuppah to begin, feeling privileged to watch another member of the family on his way to building a “bayit neeman in Eretz Yisrael.” It was my first Zoom wedding, a bizarre experience; a strange way to participate, and weird to see the father of the chatan give siddur kedushin, masked. The few men and women in physical attendance donned masks, except for the chatan, and the kallah whose face was revealed only after the traditional face cover was removed.

Like a hungry fox, this coronavirus has brought death, destruction, and mourning around the globe, yet despite the pandemic, joyful new beginnings seem to rise. The events of the day occupied my mind as I prepared to light my Shabbat candles. I imagined Rabbi Akiva and his rabbinic colleagues on Har Hazofim, witnessing the fox weave its way among the stones of the holy Temple. As I struck the match, I could almost hear the rabbis of the Mishnah, their voices raised in unison toward their leader, “Nechamtani Akiva, nechamtani; You have consoled us, Akiva, you have consoled us,” their voices fading into the flame of my Shabbat candles.

About the Author
Faigie Heiman is a frequent contributor of essays and short stories to Jewish newspapers and magazines, and author of a popular memoir, Girl For Sale. Born in Brooklyn, she made Aliya in 1960 with her husband and together raised a three-generation family in Jerusalem spanning six historical decades.
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