Blue State Blues: Rabbi Akiva’s Lessons for Passover in the Pandemic

Passover coronavirus (Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)
Mark Lennihan / Associated Press

Rabbi Eli Stefansky, who leads a worldwide daily lesson in Talmud, observed Wednesday that this year marks the first time in history that Passover has been celebrated in discrete families — save for the very first Passover, in Egypt, in the Exodus.

The subtle implication: just as that generation endured a night of peril in quiet contemplation, and experienced a miraculous deliverance the next morning, so, too, may we also live to see a liberation for all humanity.

We may not easily recognize the form of that deliverance.

My paternal great-grandfather Boris, or Baruch, was a soldier who died in the last great pandemic in 1919. He was my age.

I found his grave on a visit to Lithuania two years ago. His tragic death rendered my great-grandmother and her four children instantly destitute.

Their only option was to abandon their town, Joniškis, for South Africa, where relatives could help them start over.

Two decades later, every Jew in Joniškis was murdered.

And so, ironically, I am alive because of Baruch’s passing.

I say this not as an attempt to console anyone who, God forbid, has lost someone to coronavirus, or who may be fighting that illness right now.

I say it only to observe that there is no way for us to understand how and why the universe works the way it does. Only God understands.

This year, the pain of celebrating Passover in isolation is compounded by the fact that the coronavirus has hit the religious Jewish community particularly hard.

We cannot know why; we did not “deserve” it. What we know is we are lucky to be celebrating Passover at all.

There are people still alive today who survived the horror of the Holocaust. For most of them — in the ghettos, in the concentration camps, or in hiding — the idea of celebrating the Festival of Freedom was unthinkable at best, a cruel irony at worst.

Some people did find a way — miraculously — but they did so at great risk to their lives.

We, today, have the opportunity to save life by celebrating small.

The Talmud (Tractate Berachot 60-61) discusses a curious principle in Jewish law: namely, that one is obligated to bless God for bad fortune as well as good fortune.

The sages wrestle with this difficult idea — and they illustrate it, as the Talmud so often does, with a story.

In this case, the tale involves Rabbi Akiva, one of the most influential and iconic teachers in the entire Jewish tradition, a man considered so righteous that the Talmud suggests elsewhere he was more pious than Moses himself.

The story goes (Artscroll translation):

Rabbi Akiva … was once traveling along the road. When he reached a certain city, he requested lodgings but no one provided him any. He said: Whatever the Merciful One does is for the best. He went and slept in the field. Now, he had with him a rooster, a donkey and a lamp. The wind came and blew out the lamp; a cat came and ate the rooster; a lion came and ate the donkey. After suffering these losses, [Rabbi Akiva] said: Whatever the Merciful One does is for the best. That very night, an army came and captured the city. [Rabbi Akiva] said to them [i.e. his traveling companions]: Did I not tell you, Whatever the Holy One, Blessed is He, does is all for the good? (Tractate Berachot 60b-61a)

The lesson is particularly poignant because of the tragic circumstances of Rabbi Akiva’s life. He lived to see both the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70, and the crushing of the Bar Kochba revolt around 135, after which he was tortured and executed.

Moreover, Rabbi Akiva also survived a pandemic that wiped out his disciples — all 24,000 of them, representing the entirety of Jewish religious scholarship in that generation.

Rabbi Akiva had to start over, with just five students — all of whom risked their lives to receive rabbinic ordination in a time of cruel Roman persecution.

To this day, Jews observe several weeks of mourning between Passover and Shavuot (“Pentecost”) to recall the tragic loss of a generation of future Jewish leaders.

Interestingly, the Talmud gives a reason for the pandemic: the students did not treat each other with respect.

I have written elsewhere that the divisions in American society made us peculiarly vulnerable to the coronavirus outbreak. We no longer trust our news, and we no longer even trust each other, and no sooner does a crisis like this arise than leaders of one faction or another attempt to exploit it for political gain.

Certainly one lesson to draw from this terrible affliction is that we must rebuild our national bonds.

After all, we are all in this together. As Jews must observe Passover in “quarantine,” Christians must also celebrate Easter outside of their churches, and Muslims will observe Ramadan later this month away from their mosques, unable to break the fast with family.

We are not always so good at getting along with each other. So perhaps our shared suffering will produce new empathy, new willingness to reach out to one another.

And there is another lesson that Rabbi Akiva teaches.

The Talmud relates (Makkot 24b), that the sages were once traveling to Jerusalem in the days after the Temple’s destruction.

They were gazing at the Temple Mount, desolate and destroyed, when they saw the disturbing sight of a fox emerging from the place where the Holy of Holies once stood, where the spirit of God Himself had dwelled.

The rabbis started to weep — except Rabbi Akiva, who began to smile. The rabbis were aghast: how could he be happy?

Rabbi Akiva answered by quoting two prophecies from the Old Testament, which were both mentioned by Isaiah. One, the prophecy of Uriah, foretold the destruction of Jerusalem; the other, the prophecy of Zechariah, foretold its rebuilding.

Now, Rabbi Akiva explained, that he had witnessed the fulfillment of the first prophecy, it was certain that the second would also come to fruition.

“Akiva, you have comforted us!” the rabbis exclaimed.

As hard as this time is, it is also the first time humanity has dared to stand up to a pandemic, refusing merely to accept death.

We will prevail. We will rebuild. We will be great, again — and soon.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News and the host of Breitbart News Sunday on Sirius XM Patriot on Sunday evenings from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. PT). His new book, RED NOVEMBER, is available for pre-order. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.

Rabbi Eli Stefansky’s daily “Daf Yomi” lesson can be completed in eight minutes, and can be found here.

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