Rabbi Akiva remains one of the most beloved and well known Tannaim in the Talmud. He was the teacher of none less than Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, and his opinions are quoted extensively. His story of is well-known throughout Jews and non-Jews, of how he lived 120 years (40 as an ignoramus, 40 studying and 40 teaching), and how he married Rachel 24 years later, after amassing 24.000 students. However, few people know how great Rabbi Akiva reached and what his horrible death can teach us.
The cryptic Midrash
A famous Midrash relates how, when Moshe Rabbenu was in Heaven to receive the Torah, he saw Hashem creating the crowns that would grace its letters. When he then asked what they were for, Hashem replied that in future, a man named Akiva would come and expound laws on each of these crowns. Amazed that such a thing existed, MosheRabbenu asked to see him and, in his great humility, that the Torah be given through Rabbi Akiva. When Moshe Rabbenu inquired about his death, Hashem showed his gruesome end, tortured at the hands of the Romans. Shocked at how such a great sage would meet his demise, Moshe Rabbenu asked “this is the Torah and this is its reward?!”.
Here we find one of the most cryptic statements from Hashem, in which he replied שתוק כך עלה במחשבתי)“Be quiet, such is what came to my mind”). We are left stumped at the reply, since, not only it was a fair question, but one would think Hashem certainly could’ve given a better explanation. So, what’s the meaning of this statement?
The secret of the crowns
Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen MiLublin gives a fascinating insight on the power of the will. As we know from the Zohar and the Arizal, in the Tree of Life array of sephirot, depending on the system we are working with, we sometimes consider either Keter (crown) or Da’at (knowledge) so the number is always ten.
Keter is sometimes called Da’at Elyon (the Supreme Da’at) and the reason is that it is the source of a person’s will. However, there’s a very stark difference between the two. The regular Da’at refers to a person’s normal state of consciousness, where he/she perceives life in a not so extraordinary matter. Keter, on the other hand is related to a supernatural state of mind when the individual is pressed to an extreme.
Many times, people do amazing feats, like when a certain woman, alone, lifted a jeep to save her baby child which was below it. Or when a certain losing army is surrounded by the enemy and manages to fight much more fiercely, turn the tables, and win. These are all manifestations of Keter, or the Supreme Will.
Crowns in the Torah
In Etz Chaim (Tree of Life), the Arizal explains that there are 4 levels in Creation as we see from the Torah Scroll, which are the Otiot (Letters), the Tagim (crowns), the Nekudot (Signals), and the Ta’amim (Cantilliation signs). These correspond to the four spiritual worlds we learned before.
And, not surprisingly, the only one of these 4 levels that does not alter the sound in any way is precisely the Tagim (crowns). This, in itself is one of the advantages of this level over the other ones, since it makes no apparent difference to the reading. They also allude to the incredible secret of the shattering of the vessels, but this is a much bigger subject to cover.
Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen MiLublin explains that, Hashem was in effect telling Moshe Rabbenu that when Rabbi Akiva was being killed, he in effect was elevated to the level of thought! This is a supremely elevated level, which happens in silence and that’s why Hashem told Moshe Rabbenu “be quiet!”. If you want to understand his level, you will need to be quiet (like the crowns!) and then you will see that his portion is really blessed.
Interestingly enough, the Meshech Chokhmah gives also a fascinating insight in the laws of besieging a city. It’s known from the Torah that when fighting an army, we never surround them completely, and most commentators explain that we need to keep our compassion and let those who wish to flee to run away. The Meshech Chokhmah however explains different. He says that, on the contrary, we actually don’t want our enemies to reach this exalted state of Keter and fight much more fiercely! The opening gives them a space of doubt so that they never really get this superhuman will when faced with the decision of fight or die.
Rabbi Akiva is buried in Tveria and his Kever is a popular place of pilgrimage, also for our Prayer Treks! May his memory be a blessing!