When Moses Met Akiva

Torah study is not the automatic emulation of the thought of previous generations. Instead, each of us may offer a new explanation of the crowns adorning the letters in the Torah's text.

"Rabbi Yehuda, quoting Rav, said: `When Moses ascended (to receive the Torah), he found God sitting and tying crowns to the letters (adding crowns to the Torah's letters). He asked, "Master of the Universe, for whom are You delaying the Torah's granting on Mount Sinai (for whom are you adding these crowns)?" God replied: "A person who will appear a few generations from now and who will be called Akiva, son of Joseph. He will explain each and every thorn on these letters and will generate mountains of laws from them." Moses said: "Master of the universe, please let me see him." God answered: "Walk backward." Moses went and sat in the eighth row of benches (in Rabbi Akiva's academy). He could not understand what the others were saying. His strength dwindled (he felt weak due to his sadness over not understanding anything). When Rabbi Akiva reached an item (a certain item), his students (Rabbi Akiva's students) asked their teacher: "Rabbi, how did you reach that conclusion?" He answered: "(The source of my statement is that) Moses received this law at Mount Sinai and passed it on to succeeding generations." He (Moses) felt relieved (because he heard Rabbi Akiva citing him). Moses reappeared before God and said, "Master of the Universe, if you have such an individual (as Akiva), why are you giving the Torah to me?" God retorted: "Silence! That is my decision." Moses then said, "Master of the Universe, please show me his teachings, please show me his reward." God told Moses, "Walk backward." Moses walked backward and saw Akiva's flesh being weighed in a slaughterhouse (or, perhaps, a butcher's shop). Moses turned to God and said, "Master of the Universe, is this the reward for studying and teaching Torah?" God replied, "Silence! That is my decision."'

- Babylonian Talmud, Menahot Tractate, page 29B

This fictional account, which moves dizzyingly along a "time tunnel," is a profound tale concerned with fundamental questions of human existence. Apparently, it is an elaborate variation of what we read in the Torah about Moses' refusal to serve as his people's leader, and his argument that there are more fitting individuals (Exodus 4:13). This passage has been shifted to the section on the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai (see "Otzar Hamidrashim," page 421.) In the traditional writing of Torah scrolls, crowns are added to adorn some of the letters. (Thorns are mentioned below. According to Rabbenu Tam, the "thorn" is the line that extends from the left side of the Hebrew letter yod.)

In the above midrash, God delays Moses who has ascended to the mountain's peak because God is adding decorations to letters in the Torah scroll. God explains that the reason for the delay is an individual named Akiva, who will create religious laws from these embellishments. Moses is so curious to meet this person that he does not fear a further delay. He asks God to send him along a "time tunnel" so that he can meet Akiva. (In this midrash, the time-tunnel journey is presented through the paradoxical command, "Walk backward," which totally reverses the time sequence: Moses apparently travels backward in time to meet Akiva who lives in the future.) Then we find Moses, who handed down the Torah to his people, sitting in the back row at Rabbi Akiva's academy like the weakest student in the class, unable to comprehend the lesson.

This is certainly an existential depiction of the Torah's essence. Torah study is not the automatic emulation of what previous generations have thought; instead, each of us has the opportunity to offer a new explanation of the crowns adorning the letters in the Torah's text. In other words, an internal, original spring flows from the Torah, and this fact fully legitimizes Akiva's introduction of new laws that were not transmitted to Moses at Mount Sinai.

However, here the reader is flung into an additional reversal, beyond the absolute reversal of the linear time-sequence: When, in the course of his lesson, Akiva reaches a very profound point, which touches on the very root of things, and his students ask him about the origin of the particular Jewish law he is explaining, he gives a response that sounds paradoxical: "Moses received this law at Mount Sinai and passed it on to succeeding generations." (This phrase means that, while the Torah might not explicitly mention a certain religious law, Moses transmitted it orally at Mount Sinai and it has been passed on to succeeding generations.)

How are we to understand this scene? If the law Akiva is teaching in his academy was originally given to Moses and then transmitted for posterity - how do we explain the fact that Moses has not the slightest understanding of what Akiva is telling the class? What is even more perplexing is Moses' reaction: He neither protests nor questions Akiva's attribution of the law to him, and instead derives great satisfaction from being referred to as the source of the law in question. What I believe is being stated here is that, when we are privileged to reach our inner truth and to thereby touch our divine "roots," we are authorized to explain that we have received that inner truth from the same source from which truth was handed down at Mount Sinai.

Rabbi Akiva's unique ability to penetrate reality's depth and reveal its divine roots in the tiny thorns decorating the Torah scroll's letters astonishes Moses. When Moses reappears before God at Mount Sinai, he asks him in a reflecting both humility and a weakened spirit: "Master of the universe, if you have such an individual, why are you giving the Torah to me?" God's retort sounds like an angry rebuke: "Silence! That is my decision." Once more we are flung into an incomprehensible paradox. What does this bizarre response mean? Is the idea here, in the phrasing of Gnostic thought, that God is subject to some other force, perhaps even a superior one, that generates thoughts in his mind?

Cognitive dissonance

However, this midrash's immense power is generated by its final scene, which leaves the reader speechless. Moses' curiosity about the individual who will appear in the future, Akiva, now expresses itself in a question about Akiva's reward. Common sense, which is thoroughly mangled in this midrash, is now dealt a death blow: God returns Moses, through the time tunnel, to the future, where Akiva's dead body has already been cut up (after the Romans tortured and then killed him). We, the midrash's readers, are as amazed as Moses by this sight. The entire midrash creates a continual cognitive dissonance whose climax is this appalling scene. The sense of paradox is so great that we sense that we are now in a world of utter nonsense. God's response to Moses' astonishment is a repetition of what God had said when Moses returned from Akiva's classroom: "Silence! That is my decision."

I have already demonstrated elsewhere the significance of the use of the chief protagonist's name as a literary vehicle in midrashim. Apparently, Akiva's name serves here as a key for understanding the narrative: The name "Akiva" alludes to his fate, because the root of his name, aleph-kuf-vav, can also be understood as an allusion to the Hebrew word "akev" (heel), used in classical rabbinical literature to connote "end" or "conclusion." In classical rabbinical midrashim, spiritual time begins at Mount Sinai when the Torah is given and, at that time, the scroll's letters are adorned with crowns that serve as an opening. Like the human body, spiritual time has an opening, located above the letter's head: a crown, through which God is revealed to us in the most direct manner possible. The letter also has a final point: the "heel" of time, when God "hides his face" from us.

On the one hand, Moses is the greatest of all the prophets and a person with whom God speaks "face to face." However, this fact cannot explain the great spiritual secret Rabbi Akiva reveals when he explains the letter's crowns, which, in his generation, are already presented as "thorns." The crowns' presentation as thorns is not a coincidental development: In Akiva's era, God is revealed not in the letter's crown (i.e., through pleasure), but in its thorn (i.e., through suffering). Thus, God does not speak to Akiva face to face but rather through the letter's "heel," which also alludes to the Hebrew adjective "akov," which means circuitous or complicated.

In the above midrash, the presentation of the Torah's "descent" somewhat resembles the spheres' descent in kabbala - from the most secret and profound, to the external and distant. The Torah is presented as antecedent to the world's creation (see Genesis Rabbah, chapter 1) and its secret, incomprehensible nucleus is what "arose in God's mind" together with the idea of the world's creation. This profound idea is phrased in more "external" wording through words that initially descend into material reality in the form of letters that God himself has inscribed in the Torah. Moses lowers the Torah one more level to the material world when he hands it down to the people awaiting him at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses and the Jewish people are no longer capable of penetrating the hidden thought contained in the Torah's "attire," which consists of its letters, and their only recourse is to try to understand that hidden thought through human tools of logic. However, these tools cannot help us understand what is above the letters: the crowns and the thorns, which apparently represent pleasure and suffering.

Mature perspective

From human logic's standpoint, the familiar arrangement of things is straightforward: For good deeds we receive a reward (pleasure), while for evil deeds we receive punishment (suffering). The additional "descent" in the course of time creates a more mature perspective, where Moses' "childish" logic is totally reversed. The explication of the Torah's words is a thorough investigation (see Frenkel, "Darchei Hamidrash") and extracts from the words that which is found in their secret nucleus. Rabbi Akiva, who explicates the letters' crowns, which have become thorns, exemplifies in his own life the possibility of life beyond the rigid law of nature, the "pleasure principle" (the continual flight from suffering and continual pursuit of pleasure).

Thus, only in recent generations, at time's "heel," after the disappearance (or "death," to use Nietzsche's term) of that simplistic "God the Father" who, in the earliest generations, "saw to" the proper arrangement of the system of crime and punishment, has a new arrangement emerged: a life of inner freedom we commonly call existentialism, a life where the individual clings to truth without requesting a reward. Neither suffering nor death constitutes an obstacle to this "demand," which stems from an intense love of inner truth. Thus, when Rabbi Akiva is executed after enduring horrendous torture, he reportedly utters in complete tranquillity the phrase "And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might" with his dying breath (see the Babylonian Talmud, Brachot Tractate, page 72B and Auerbach, "Hazal," pages 367-368, on Akiva's great love for God).

Today's generation is prepared for the "leap of faith" into the unknown, in pursuit of that profound secret of the "thought that was the antecedent" of the world's creation - a secret that leaves us speechless because human language cannot express it. The thought can only be expressed; just as we cannot "talk" about a great work of art - we can only look at it, speechless. And there is no greater work of art than the mysterious secret of life in this world, the secret of creation and love.

In this midrash, the time-sequence reversal links itself to the reversal of hierarchies, because hierarchical logic exists only in the common-sense world, not in the world of love. Moses believes that, according to common sense criteria, he is the "greatest," namely, someone capable of understanding the Torah's secrets better than others. However, many generations later, Akiva arises to explicate the thorns of suffering. Akiva, the "smallest one," penetrates those very secrets that Moses cannot understand. Moses feels insulted because of the confusion here between "greatest" and "smallest." However, the confusion begins in the initial scene, where God himself ("the greatest of all") delays the important event of the Torah being handed down at Mount Sinai to inscribe with his own hands the "small crowns" of life's secrets for Akiva, who will be born at time's "heel."