This week’s parasha begins with the command to appoint shoftim v’shotrim, “judges and officers” who will enforce the law. The Torah warns that judges must not pervert justice, show favouritism, or accept bribes (Deuteronomy 16:19). If there is some kind of civil dispute, the Torah instructs the nation to turn to the “kohanim, Levites, and judges who will be in those days, and you shall inquire, and they will tell you the words of judgement.” (Deuteronomy 17:9) From this the Sages derive that the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of the Jewish people, must contain a mix of all three types of Jews: kohanim, levi’im, and Israel. What exactly is the Sanhedrin? When did it emerge, and why is it referred to by a Greek word? Continue reading
This week we continue to celebrate Passover and count the days of the Omer. The 49-day counting period is meant to prepare us spiritually for Shavuot, for the great day of the Giving of the Torah. As our Sages teach, the Torah wasn’t just given once three millennia ago, but is continually re-gifted each year, with new insights opening up that were heretofore never possible to uncover. At the same time, the Omer is also associated with mourning, for in this time period the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva perished, as the Talmud (Yevamot 62b) records:
Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of disciples, from Gabbatha to Antipatris, and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua—and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: All of them died between Pesach and Shavuot.
Rabbi Akiva is a monumental figure in Judaism. People generally don’t appreciate how much we owe to Rabbi Akiva, and how much he transformed our faith. In many ways, he established Judaism as we know it, during those difficult days following the destruction of the Second Temple, until the Bar Kochva Revolt, in the aftermath of which he was killed.
Rabbi Akiva is by far the most important figure in the development of the Talmud. From various sources, we learn that it was he who first organized the Oral Torah of Judaism into the Six Orders that we have today. The Mishnah, which is really the first complete book of Jewish law and serves as the foundation for the Talmud, was possibly first composed by Rabbi Akiva. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 86a) states that the main corpus of the Mishnah (including any anonymous teaching) comes from Rabbi Meir, while the Tosefta comes from Rabbi Nehemiah, the Sifra from Rabbi Yehuda, and the Sifre from Rabbi Shimon—and all are based on the work of Rabbi Akiva. Indeed, each of these rabbis was a direct student of Rabbi Akiva. (Although Rabbi Nehemiah is not listed among the five students of Rabbi Akiva in the Talmudic passage above, he is on the list in Sanhedrin 14a.)
In short, Rabbi Akiva began the process of formally laying down the Oral Tradition, which resulted in the production of the Mishnah a generation later, and culminated in the completion of the Talmud after several centuries.
It wasn’t just the Oral Torah that Rabbi Akiva had a huge impact on. We learn in the Talmud (Megillah 7a) that Rabbi Akiva was involved in a debate regarding which of the books of the Tanakh is holy and should be included in the official canon. Although it was the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah (“Men of the Great Assembly”) who are credited with first compiling the holy texts that make up the Tanakh, the process of canonization wasn’t quite complete until the time of Rabbi Akiva. Therefore, Rabbi Akiva both “completed” the Tanakh and “launched” the Talmud. This may just make him the most important rabbi ever.
That distinction is further reinforced when we consider the time period that Rabbi Akiva lived in. On the one hand, he had to contend with the destruction wrought by the Romans, who sought to exterminate Judaism for good. They made Torah study and Torah teaching illegal, and executed anyone who trained new rabbis. In fact, Rabbi Akiva was never able to ordain his five new students after his original 24,000 were killed. He taught them, but lost his life before the ordination could take place. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 14a) records:
The Evil Government [ie. Rome] decreed that whoever performed an ordination should be put to death, and whoever received ordination should be put to death, and the city in which the ordination took place should be demolished, and the boundaries wherein it had been performed, uprooted.
What did Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava do? He went and sat between two great mountains, between two large cities; between the Sabbath boundaries of the cities of Usha and Shefaram, and there ordained five sages: Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Yose, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua. Rabbi Avia also adds Rabbi Nehemiah to the list.
As soon as their enemies discovered them, Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava urged them: “My children, flee!” They said to him: “What will become of you, Rabbi?” He replied: “I will lie down before them like a stone which none can overturn.” It was said that the enemy did not stir from the spot until they had driven three hundred iron spears into his body, making it like a sieve…
In the wake of the catastrophic destruction of the Bar Kochva Revolt, and the unbearable decrees of the Romans, traditional Judaism and its holy wisdom nearly vanished. The “world was desolate”, as the Talmud describes, “until Rabbi Akiva came” and relayed that holy wisdom to the five students who would ensure the survival of the Torah. In fact, the vast majority of the Mishnah’s teachings are said in the name of either Rabbi Akiva or these five students. Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai alone is mentioned over 600 times in the Mishnah—way more than anyone else—followed by Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Yose. Without Rabbi Akiva’s genius and bravery, Judaism may have been extinguished.
Meanwhile, Judaism at the time also had to contend with the rise of Christianity. Rabbi Akiva had to show Jews the truth of the Torah, and protect them from the sway of Christian missionaries. It is generally agreed that Onkelos (or Aquila of Sinope) was also a student of Rabbi Akiva. Recall that Onkelos was a Roman who converted to Judaism, and went on to make an official translation of the Torah for the average Jew. That translation, Targum Onkelos, is still regularly read today. What is less known is that Onkelos produced both a Greek and Aramaic translation of the Torah to make the holy text more accessible to Jews (as Greek and Aramaic were the main vernacular languages of Jews at the time). Every Jew could see for himself what the Torah really says, and would have the tools necessary to respond to missionaries who often mistranslated verses and interpreted them to fit their false beliefs.
Interestingly, some scholars have pointed out that Rabbi Akiva may have instituted Mishnah and began its recording into written form as a way to help counter Christianity. Because Christians adopted the Torah and appropriated the Bible as their own, it was no longer something just for Jews. As such, it was no longer enough for Jews to focus solely on Tanakh, for Christians were studying it, too, and the study of Tanakh was no longer a defining feature of a Jew either. The Jewish people therefore needed another body of text to distinguish them from Christians, and the Mishnah (and later, Talmud) filled that important role. This may be a further way in which Rabbi Akiva preserved Judaism in the face of great adversity.
Finally, Rabbi Akiva also preserved and relayed the secrets of the Torah. He was the master Kabbalist, the only one who was able to enter Pardes and “exit in peace” (Chagigah 14b). One of his five students was Rabbi Shimon, yes that Rabbi Shimon: Shimon bar Yochai, the hero of the Zohar. Thus, the entire Jewish mystical tradition was housed in Rabbi Akiva. Without him, there would be no Zohar, no Ramak or Arizal, nor any Chassidut for that matter.
All in all, Rabbi Akiva is among the most formidable figures in Jewish history. In some ways, he rivals only Moses.
How Moses Returned in Rabbi Akiva
We see a number of remarkable parallels in the lives of Moses and Rabbi Akiva. According to tradition, Rabbi Akiva also lived to the age of 120, like Moses. We also know that Rabbi Akiva was an unlearned shepherd for the first third of his life. At age 40, he went to study Torah for twenty-four years straight and became a renowned sage. According to the Arizal, Rabbi Akiva carried a part of Moses’ soul, which is why their lives parallel so closely (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 36):
Moses spent the first forty years of his life in the palace of Pharaoh, ignorant of Torah, just as Rabbi Akiva spent his first forty without Torah. The next forty years Moses spent in Cush and Midian, until returning to Egypt as the Redeemer of Israel at age 80, and leading the people for the last forty years of his life. Rabbi Akiva, too, became the leading sage of Israel at age 80, and spent his last forty years as Israel’s shepherd. As we’ve seen above, it isn’t a stretch to say that Rabbi Akiva “redeemed” Israel in his own way.
More specific details of their lives are similar as well. Moses’ critical flaw was in striking the rock to draw out water from it. With Rabbi Akiva, the moment that made him realize he could begin learning Torah despite his advanced age was when he saw a rock with a hole in it formed by the constant drip of water. He reasoned that if soft water can make a permanent impression on hard stone, than certainly the Torah could make a mark on his heart (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 6:2). Perhaps this life-changing encounter of Rabbi Akiva with the rock and water was a tikkun of some sort for Moses’ error with the rock and water.
Similarly, we read in the Torah how 24,000 men of the tribe of Shimon were killed in a plague under Moses’ watch (Numbers 25:9). This was a punishment for their sin with the Midianite women. Moses stood paralyzed when this happened, unsure of how to deal with the situation. The plague (and the sin) ended when Pinchas took matters into his own hands, and was blessed with a “covenant of peace”. The death of the 24,000 in the time of Moses resembles the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva that perished, with Rabbi Akiva, like Moses, unable to prevent their deaths. In fact, Kabbalistic sources say that the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva were reincarnations of the 24,000 men of Shimon (see Sefer Gilgulei Neshamot, 20).
There is at least one more intriguing parallel between Moses and Rabbi Akiva. We know that the adult generation in the time of Moses was condemned to die in the Wilderness because of the Sin of the Spies. Yet, we see that some people did survive and enter the Promised Land. The Torah tells us explicitly that Joshua and Caleb, the good spies, were spared the decree. In addition, Pinchas was blessed with a long life (for his actions with the plague of the 24,000) and survived to settle in Israel. (According to tradition, Pinchas became Eliyahu, who never died but was taken up to Heaven in a flaming chariot.) We also read in the Book of Joshua that Elazar, the son and successor of Aaron, continued to serve as High Priest into the settlement of Israel, and passed away around the same time as Joshua (Joshua 24:33). Finally, the Sages teach that the prophet Ahiyah HaShiloni was born in Egypt and “saw Amram” (the father of Moses) and lived until the times of Eliyahu, having been blessed with an incredibly long life (Bava Batra 121b). In his introduction to the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, 1135-1204) lists Ahiyah as a disciple of Moses, later a member of David’s court, and the one who passed on the tradition through to the time of Eliyahu.
Altogether, there are five people who were born in the Exodus generation but were spared the decree of dying in the Wilderness. (Note: the Sages do speak of some other ancient people who experienced the Exodus and settled in Israel, including Serach bat Asher and Yair ben Menashe, but these people were born long before the Exodus, in the time of Jacob and his sons.) These five people were also known to be students of Moses. The conclusion we may come to is that five of Moses’ students survived to bring the people and the Torah into Israel, just as five of Rabbi Akiva’s students survived to keep alive the Torah and Israel.
If we look a little closer, we’ll find some notable links between these groups of students. We know that Elazar ben Shammua, the student of Rabbi Akiva, was also a kohen, like Elazar the Priest. Caleb and Joshua are descendants of Yehudah and Yosef, reminiscent of Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yose (whose name is short for “Yosef”), the students of Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Meir, often identified with the miracle-worker Meir Baal HaNess, has much in common with Pinchas/Eliyahu, while Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai explicitly compared himself to Ahiyah haShiloni in the Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 35:2). As such, there may be a deeper connection lurking between the five surviving students of Moses and the five surviving students of Rabbi Akiva.
Lastly, we shouldn’t forget the Talmudic passage that describes how Moses visited the future classroom of Rabbi Akiva, and was amazed at the breadth of wisdom of the future sage. Moses asked God why He didn’t just choose Akiva to give the Torah to Israel? It was such a great question that God didn’t reply to Moses!
The Greatest Torah Principles
Of all the vast oceans of wisdom that Rabbi Akiva taught and relayed, what were the most important teachings he wished everyone to take to heart? First and foremost, Rabbi Akiva taught that the “greatest Torah principle” (klal gadol baTorah) is to love your fellow as yourself (see Sifra on Kedoshim). Aside from this, he left several gems in Pirkei Avot (3:13-16), which is customary to read now between the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot:
Rabbi Akiva would say: excessive joking and light-headedness accustom a person to promiscuity. Tradition is a safety fence for Torah, tithing is a safety fence for wealth, vows a safety fence for abstinence; a safety fence for wisdom is silence.
He would also say: Beloved is man, for he was created in the image [of God]; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to him that he was created in that image, as it says, “For in the image of God, He made man” [Genesis 9:6]. Beloved are Israel, for they are called children of God; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to them that they are called children of God, as it is stated: “You are children of the Lord, your God” [Deuteronomy 14:1]. Beloved are Israel, for they were given a precious item [the Torah]; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to them that they were given a precious item, as it is stated: “I have given you a good portion—My Torah, do not forsake it” [Proverbs 4:2].
All is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is granted. The world is judged with goodness, and all is in accordance with the majority of one’s deeds.
He would also say: Everything is given as collateral, and a net is spread over all the living. The store is open, the storekeeper extends credit, the account-book lies open, the hand writes, and all who wish to borrow may come and borrow. The collection-officers make their rounds every day and exact payment from man, with his knowledge and without his knowledge. Their case is well-founded, the judgement is a judgement of truth, and ultimately, all is prepared for the feast.
These words carry tremendous meanings, both on a simple level and on a mystical one, and require a great deal of contemplation. If we can summarize them in two lines: We should be exceedingly careful with our words and actions, strive to treat everyone with utmost care and respect, and remember that a time will come when we will have to account for—and pay for—all of our deeds. We should be grateful every single moment of every single day for what we have and who we are, and should remember always that God is good and just, and that all things happen for a reason.
In this week’s parasha, Toldot, we are introduced to the twin sons of Isaac: Jacob and Esau. The Torah tells us that the boys grew up and Esau became a “man of the field” while Jacob was “an innocent man sitting in tents” (Genesis 25:27). In rabbinic literature, Esau takes on a very negative aura. Although the Torah doesn’t really portray him as such a bad guy, extra-Biblical texts depict him as the worst kind of person.
Take, for instance, the first interaction between Jacob and Esau that the Torah relates. Esau comes back from the field extremely tired. At that moment, Jacob is cooking a stew. Esau asks his brother for some food, and Jacob demands in exchange that Esau give up his birthright (ie. his status as firstborn, and the privileges that come with that). Esau agrees because “behold, I am going to die” (Genesis 25:32). The plain text of the Torah makes it seem like Jacob took advantage of Esau’s near-fatal weariness and tricked him into selling his birthright. This is later confirmed when Esau says that Jacob had deceived him (Genesis 27:36), implying that Esau never really wished to rid of it.
Yet, the Torah commentaries appear to flip the story upside down. When Esau comes back from the field exhausted, it isn’t because he just returned from a difficult hunt, but rather because, as Rashi comments, he had just come back from committing murder! When Esau says “I am going to die”, it isn’t because he was on the verge of death at that moment, but because he didn’t care about the birthright at all, choosing to live by the old adage of “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”. This is a very different perspective on the same narrative.
Another example is when, many years later, Jacob returns to the Holy Land and Esau comes to meet him. Jacob assumes Esau wants to kill him, and prepares for battle. Instead, Esau genuinely seems to have missed his brother, and runs towards him, “embracing him, falling upon his neck, and kissing him” (Genesis 33:4). Again, some of the commentaries turn these words upside down, saying that Esau didn’t really lovingly kiss his brother, but actually bit him! Rashi’s commentary on this verse cites both versions. He concludes by citing Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in stating that although Esau, as a rule, hates Jacob, at that moment he really did love his brother.
So, how bad was Esau really?
Seeing the Good in Esau
Occasionally, we read about Esau’s good qualities. The Midrash (Devarim Rabbah 1:15) famously states that no one honoured their parents better than Esau did. This is clear from a simple reading of the Torah, too, where Esau is always standing by to fulfil his parents’ wishes. For instance, as soon as he learns that his parents are unhappy with his choice of wives, he immediately goes off to marry someone they might approve of (Genesis 28:8-9).
We should be asking why his parents didn’t simply tell him from the start that his original wives were no good? Why did they allow him to marry them in the first place? If Esau really was the person who most honours his parents, he would have surely listened to them! We may learn from this that Esau’s parents didn’t put too much effort into him. It’s almost like Rebecca gave up on her son from the moment she heard the prophecy about the twins in her belly. The Torah says as much when it states, right after the birth of the twins, that “Isaac loved Esau because his game-meat was in his mouth, but Rebecca loved Jacob.” (Genesis 25:28) Rebecca showed affection to Jacob alone, while Isaac’s love for Esau was apparently conditional. Of course, children always feel their parents’ inner sentiments, and there is no doubt Esau felt his parents’ lack of concern for him. Is it any wonder he tried so hard to please them?
From this perspective, one starts to feel a great deal of pity for Esau. How can anyone read Esau’s heartfelt words after being tricked out of his blessing and not be filled with empathy?:
When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried out a great and bitter cry, and he said to his father, “Bless me, too, O my father! …Do you not have a blessing left for me?” (Genesis 27:34-36)
Esau was handed a bad deal right from the start. He was born different, not just in appearance, but with a serious life challenge. He was gifted (or cursed) with a particularly strong yetzer hara, from birth. His fate was already foretold, and his parents believed it. They invested little into him. And it seems all he ever wanted was to make them proud.
Incidentally, this is one of the major problems with fortune-telling, and why the Torah is so adamant about not consulting any kind of psychic. The psychic’s words, even if entirely wrong, will shape the person’s views. It is very much like the Talmud’s statement (Berakhot 55b) that a dream is fulfilled according to how it is interpreted. A person believes the interpreter, and inadvertently brings about that interpretation upon themselves. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Who knows what might have happened if Rebecca never bothered to consult a prophet about her pregnancy? After all, Jewish tradition is clear on the fact that negative prophecies do not have to come true. God relays such a prophecy in order to inspire people to change, and thus avert the negative decree. Such was precisely the case with Jonah and his prophecy regarding Nineveh. The people heard the warning, repented, and the prophecy was averted.
Perhaps this is what Isaac and Rebecca should have done. Instead of giving up on Esau, they should have worked extra hard to guide him in the right direction. (Isaac indirectly did the opposite, motivating his son’s hunting since he loved the “game-meat in his mouth”.) The Sages affirm that Esau was not a lost case, and state that had Jacob allowed his daughter Dinah to marry Esau, she would have reformed him (see, for example, Beresheet Rabbah 76:9).
At the end, Jacob returns to the Holy Land and, instead of the war with Esau that he was expecting, his brother welcomes him back with open arms. He weeps, and genuinely misses him. Esau has forgiven his brother, yet again, and buries the past. He hopes to live with his brother in peace henceforth, and invites him to live together in Seir. Esau offers to safely escort Jacob and his family. Jacob rejects the offer, and tells Esau to go along and he will join him later (Genesis 33:14). This never happens. Jacob has no intention to live with Esau, and as soon as his brother leaves, Jacob a completely different course. Esau is tricked one last time.
We only hear about Esau once more in the Torah. When Isaac dies, Esau is there to give his father a proper burial (Genesis 35:29). In fact, the Book of Jubilees, which doesn’t portray Esau too kindly either, nonetheless suggests that Esau had repented at the end of his life. There we read that it was his sons that turned evil, and even coerced him into wrongdoing (37:1-5). In Jubilees, Esau tells his parents that he has no interest in killing Jacob, and loves his brother wholeheartedly, more than anyone else (35:22). He admits that Jacob is the one that deserves the birthright, and a double portion as the assumed firstborn (36:12).
The Torah never tells us what ends up happening to Esau. The Midrash states that he was still there when Jacob’s sons came to bury their father in the Cave of the Patriarchs. Esau tried to stop them, at which point Jacob’s deaf grandson Hushim decapitated him. (A slightly different version is found in the Talmud as well, Sotah 13a.) Esau’s head rolled down into the Cave of the Patriarchs, while the rest of his body was buried elsewhere. Perhaps what this is meant to teach us is that while Esau’s body was indeed mired in sin, his head was completely sound, and he certainly had the potential to be a righteous man—maybe even one of the forefathers, hence his partial burial in the Cave of the Patriarchs.
At the end of the day, Esau is not so much a villain as he is a tragically failed hero.
Why Did Esau Become so Evil?
As we’ve seen, the Torah itself doesn’t portray Esau as such a bad person. Conversely, one of the 613 mitzvot is “not to despise an Edomite, for he is your brother.” (Deuteronomy 23:8) The Torah reminds us that the children of Israel and the children of Esau (known as Edomites) are siblings, and should treat each other as such.
Nearly a millennium later, the prophet Malachi—generally considered the last prophet and, according to one tradition, identified with Ezra the Scribe—says (Malachi 1:2-3):
“I have loved you,” says Hashem, “Yet you say: ‘How have You loved us?’ Was not Esau a brother to Jacob?” says Hashem, “yet I loved Jacob, but Esau I hated…”
The text goes on to differentiate between Israel and Edom, stating that while Israel will be restored, Edom will be permanently extinguished. We have seen this prophecy fulfilled in history; Israel is still here, of course, while Edom has long disappeared from the historical record. Jacob’s descendants continue to thrive, while Esau’s are long gone.
By the times of the Talmud, there were no real Edomites left, so the Sages began to associate Edom with a new entity: the Roman Empire. The Sages certainly didn’t believe that the Romans were the direct genetic descendants of Esau, but rather that they were their spiritual heirs. Why did the Sages make this connection?
I believe the answers lies with King Herod the Great.
Recall that approximately two thousand years ago Herod ruled as the Roman-approved puppet king of Judea. He was a tremendous tyrant, and is vilified in both Jewish and Christian tradition. The Talmud (Bava Batra 3b-4a) relates how Herod slaughtered all the rabbis in his day, leaving only Bava ben Buta, whom he had blinded. Later, Herod had an exchange with Bava and realized how wise the rabbis were:
Herod then said: “I am Herod. Had I known that the Rabbis were so circumspect, I should not have killed them. Now tell me what amends I can make.”
Bava ben Buta replied: “As you have extinguished the light of the world, [for so the Torah Sages are called] as it is written, ‘For the commandment is a light and the Torah a lamp’ (Proverbs 6:23), go now and attend to the light of the world [which is the Temple] as it is written, ‘And all the nations become enlightened by it.’” (Isaiah 2:2)
Herod did just that, and renovated the Temple to be the most beautiful building of all time, according to the Talmud. It wouldn’t last long, as that same Temple would be destroyed by his Roman overlords within about a century.
What many forget is that Herod was not a native Jew, but an Idumean. And “Idumea” was simply the Roman name for Edom. Herod was a real, red-blooded Edomite. (Though it should be noted that the Idumeans had loosely, or perhaps forcibly, converted to Judaism in the time of the Hasmoneans.) Herod took over the Jewish monarchy, and began the horrible persecutions that the Roman Empire—of which he was a part—was all too happy to continue. It seems quite likely, therefore, that the association between Edom and Rome began at that point. The people resented that Roman-Edomite tyrant Herod that persecuted them so harshly.
Henceforth, it was easy for the Sages to spill their wrath upon Edom, and their progenitor Esau. Esau became a symbol of the Roman oppressor. “Esau” and “Edom” were code words, used for speaking disparagingly about Rome to avoid alarming the authorities. Indeed, when the Sages speak about the evils of Esau, they are often really referring to the evils of the Roman Empire. It is therefore not surprising that Esau becomes possibly the most reviled figure in the Torah—as the Romans were unquestionably the most reviled entity in Talmudic times.