Throughout Rabbi Akiva’s life, he lived during a time when there was a sort of a plague – that of war and destruction. Social distancing would have been the norm as observing Jewish ritual publicly for most of his life was at the very least frowned upon and at most punishable by death. Rabbi Akiva’s generation was before Judah the Prince’s revolution that codified the post-Temple Jewish norms that we know and live by today, meaning that Jewish practice in the home and small community had not yet been the norm.
There are of course any number of passages and sections in the Hagadah that remind us of this year’s Corona seder. The one that I wanted to highlight was looking at how Rabbi Akiva, one of the stars of Hagadah, and his outlook on celebrating seders alone. This quote from Mishnah Pesachim 10:6 and appears in the Hagadah as the last thing we say before the bracha of גאל ישראל which concludes the Magid section:
רבי עקיבא אומר: כן ה’ אלהינו ואלהי אבותינו יגיענו למועדים ולרגלים אחרים הבאים לקראתנו לשלום, שמחים בבנין עירך וששים בעבודתך, ונאכל שם מן הזבחים ומן הפסחים כו’,
Rabbi Akiva says: “So may the Lord our God and the God of our ancestors bring us to other holidays and festivals which come towards us for peace, rejoicing in the rebuilding of Your city and celebrating serving You, and there we will eat of the sacrifices and the pesahim” etc.
Rabbi Akiva was around twenty years old during the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. He had seen Jerusalem and the Temple at the peak of their importance and beauty, when it was one of the most important cities in the world. At its end, though it was burned by the Romans, beforehand it had been torn apart by rivaling factions of Jews. It was a world of mistrust and secrecy, and then after the destruction, one of confusion because of the completely new norms Judaism had to face.
When he was in his sixties, he saw the less famous Jewish revolt – the “Kitos Rebellion” of 115-117 where Jews from all over the Roman world fought against emperor Trajan. This rebellion led to the destruction of the Alexandria synagogue and its community, the most prosperous and famous of any Jewish community in the world at the time. Like Jerusalem in 70, the Alexandria Jewish community never recovered. In response to the devastation, Jews converted en mass to the upstart religion of Christianity. Rabbi Akiva at this time managed to become one of the most important rabbis of his generation, bringing thousands of people to his houses of learning. From this point on there were severe restrictions on Jewish practice and learning in public places, and sometimes at home as well.
When Rabbi Akiva was executed by the Romans in 135, when he was in his eighties, for teaching Torah. It was just as the tide was turning against the Bar Kochva revolt – a five year rebellion that resulted in almost 600,000 Jewish lives lost. This was the greatest loss of Jewish lives until the Holocaust 1,900 years later. There is speculation even that the cause of death of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students was not a plague – as is famously told – caused by speaking lashon hara. Historians speculate that this plague was code for being killed in battle or executed by the Romans during the revolt that Rabbi Akiva supported.
Maybe he supported the revolt because he saw an opportunity to return to his childhood experiences of Jerusalem in his lifetime. It would take a few generations until around the year 200 when Judaism was thriving again under Yehudah Hanasi. During this time, the Mishnah was compiled, where this quote of Rabbi Akiva quote was recorded, to help guide Jews all over the world to celebrate in their own ways and in their own communities.
Rabbi Akiva’s life from beginning to end is marked by these periods of great tragedy, war, and devastation – where it was not free for Jews to study and pray, let alone to celebrate the holidays. It was all too common in Rabbi Akiva’s time to be socially distant during times that family and community is most needed to fulfil the joy of the holidays, and not just the mitzvot. His statement isn’t just found in the Mishnah and our Haggadot, it is also used as a “harachaman” blessing in Mizrachi benchers during chol hamoed Sukkot and Pesach. We must learn the lesson of Rabbi Akiva and not jump too soon at a chance to celebrate as we once did, we have to adapt for now. Our wish is that even if this holiday isn’t our ideal of how we want to be celebrating it, the next one will be celebrated together and in times of peace.