This week’s Torah reading is Vayetze, which recounts how Jacob – following the advice of his parents – leaves the Holy Land and journeys to the land of Charan. There he meets Rachel, with whom he falls in love instantly, and agrees to labour for seven years to earn her hand in marriage. As the well-known story goes, we see how Jacob’s father-in-law Laban tricked him into first marrying Leah, Rachel’s elder sister. Jacob is forced to work yet another seven years for his beloved Rachel. The Torah then gives us a detailed account of the pregnancies of Leah, Rachel, and their maidservants, Zilpah and Bilhah, setting the foundations for the Twelve Tribes of Israel, who descend from each of the children.
In his commentary on this parasha (in Sha’ar HaPesukim), the Arizal focuses specifically on Issachar, the fifth son of Leah. He begins by quoting a verse in Tanakh (I Chronicles 12:33) that describes the tribe of Issachar as yod’ei binah, knowledgeable and wise people. He then draws from the midrash which states that Rabbi Akiva, the famous 2nd century Jewish sage, was Issachar, and that, in addition to being among the greatest rabbis of all time, he was among the aseret harugei malkhut, “The Ten Martyrs” of Israel. These were ten Talmudic sages that were killed mercilessly by the Romans.
Reincarnation and the Ten Martyrs
The narrative of the Ten Martyrs appears in many Jewish texts and goes something like this: a certain Roman emperor took an interest in learning the laws and stories of the Torah. He discovered that while the Torah is clear on the rule that kidnapping is punishable by death, the sons of Jacob who kidnapped their half-brother Joseph were never punished for their sin. Technically, by Torah law they should have been put to death.
And so, the emperor summoned ten of the greatest rabbis of the day, among them being Rabbi Akiva and Ishmael ben Elisha, the High Priest. He presented them with this conundrum and they agreed with his conclusion. The emperor decided that the ten rabbis should suffer the fate that was meant to befall the ten sons of Jacob. He decreed a death penalty upon them and had them imprisoned.
During the rabbis’ confinement, Ishmael ben Elisha invoked God’s Ineffable Name to receive communication from Heaven, and found out that this punishment was indeed decreed upon them from Above. The ten rabbis ended up being tragically martyred at the hands of Rome.
The Arizal explains that this punishment was decreed upon them from Heaven because these ten rabbis were none other than the reincarnations of the ten sons of Jacob! In that sense, they deserved their deaths as a rectification for their sins in their past lives. Each of the ten sages paralleled one of the ten sons of Jacob, and Rabbi Akiva was the reincarnation of Issachar.
The Uniqueness of Issachar
The Arizal brings up an interesting grammatical anomaly in the Torah’s text regarding Issachar’s conception. The text reads v’ishkav ima b’lilah hu, which is typically translated as “And he [Jacob] lay with her [Leah] on that night.” However, such a translation would require the text to say b’lilah hahu, whereas the text actually says b’lilah hu, which may be read “at night, he.” The Arizal explains that on that night, he [Jacob] transferred a major part of his own soul into the newly conceived child. Of all the children, Issachar was most like his father, and this is why he (and his descendants) were so wise and knowledgeable, like the patriarch Jacob himself.
Therefore, since Issachar had such a major share in Jacob’s soul, his reincarnation into Rabbi Akiva meant that Rabbi Akiva had a major part of Jacob’s soul, too. And this is why, the Arizal explains, they share a name, since Akiva is simply an Aramaic rendition of Yakov, “Jacob”. This is also why Rabbi Akiva was so exceedingly wise, like Jacob and Issachar.
The Arizal presents a further proof for this by quoting from the text of Jacob’s blessings to his children before his passing. Jacob’s blessing to Issachar was that he should be a chamor gorem, “a large-boned donkey” (Genesis 49:14). In the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva tells the story of how before he was himself an observant Torah scholar, he despised all the Torah scholars. He said that he would wish for them to have their bones crushed by the bite of a donkey! The Arizal tells us this is the deeper secret within Jacob’s prophetic blessings, as the similarity of words tie together the lives of Issachar and Rabbi Akiva.
Ultimately, Jacob became Israel and fathered the Jewish people, while the tribe of Issachar was the one that kept Torah wisdom alive throughout Israel’s early history; and finally, it is Rabbi Akiva who is most often credited with saving Judaism from near extinction following the devastating Roman-Jewish wars. Jacob, Issachar, Akiva: three wise figures sharing one soul, and playing a crucial role in the history of the Jewish people.