May 23, 2012
Rabbi Akiva’s gift to a ghost
A story for Shavuot on the value of teaching Torah even to the outcast
“You shall teach your children diligently” (Deuteronomy 6:7).
Rabbi Akiba traveled from town to town in Israel, teaching the Torah, judging cases, settling disputes, offering wisdom and listening to the stories of his people. It happened once, as he made his way to a certain town, he stopped for a moment’s rest beside an ancient cemetery. It was twilight, the moment between day and night, between light and darkness. It was twilight when the weary rabbi sat on the cemetery wall, between the living and the dead, between this world and the next. Suddenly a huge figure emerged from the darkness and rushed past, nearly knocking the rabbi over. In the gathering darkness, the rabbi made out the figure of a large man, and on his back was a huge bundle of sticks. He was out of breath and panting hard as he hurried past the rabbi. The rabbi reached out and grabbed his thick coat.
“Wait, my brother,” the rabbi cried. “Come and rest! You sound so tired, come and catch your breath.”
“Please sir, don’t hinder me. I have no time to waste!” the man huffed as he rushed by.
“Every man deserves a moment to rest. Come and sit with me, my brother,” the rabbi offered.
“No sir. Please! You don’t understand. My masters demand every moment. I have not a second to waste. Please forgive me, but I must be off,” the man panted, shaking off the rabbi’s grasp.
“Your masters?” Rabbi Akiba answered. “Who would work a man so hard? If you are a laborer, I will pay for your time. And if you are a slave, I will redeem you. So come and tell me your story.”
Terror filled the man’s eyes. “Please good sir, please let me be, I must be off!”
Now Akiba began to realize that this was no ordinary wood gatherer and no ordinary hurry. “Tell me, brother, are you of the living or of the dead?”
“I am of the dead,” the man declared. “It is my task, day and night, to gather wood and prepare charcoal. I have no permission to rest for even a moment!”
Akiba considered the man’s plight — endless toil, work without rest. “What did you do to deserve such a punishment?”
“I was the worst of sinners. I committed every conceivable offense. Every sin you can imagine, I performed. For all the misery I brought to the world, my punishment is just.”
“And did your masters mention anything that might lighten your terrible load?” the rabbi inquired.
Once again, the man looked worried. “Please let me go. If my masters find that I’ve stopped, even for a moment, they will increase my suffering. Please let me go to my work. For I was told that there is no helping me. Nothing can ease this terrible burden. Except one thing. I was told that if I ever had a son who would stand before a holy community and offer praise to God … that, and only that, might lighten my terrible burden. … But, sir, I don’t know if I have a son. My wife was only pregnant when I was taken. And if I have a son, who would want to teach him? And if someone taught him, would he rise to praise God, a boy cursed with a father like me?”
“What is the name of your city? What is the name of your wife?” the rabbi asked.
The man told him.
Some months later, Rabbi Akiba found himself in the town. He inquired about the man and his wife.
“That greedy, worthless crook! Do you know what he did to us? Let him rot wherever he is!” the townspeople screamed at the rabbi.
“And his evil witch of a wife! She was worse than him! Let her name be forgotten!”
Then Rabbi Akiba asked about their child.
“Yes, she gave birth,” the townspeople told him. “It was a son. He lives in the woods, raised by the beasts of the forest. No one would take him in.”
Rabbi Akiba went looking for the boy, and soon he found him. He had grown up in the forest. He was dressed in skins and smelled of the woods. He knew no words and acted more like an animal than a person.
Rabbi Akiba fasted for 40 days, like the 40 days without food or water that Moses spent on the top of Mount Sinai receiving the Torah. Or the 40 days one fasts if he drops a scroll of the Torah. Or the 40 days of repentance between the first of Elul and Yom Kippur. He fasted until God Himself took notice. A voice from heaven called out, “Akiba, you fast for this boy?”
“Yes,” Akiba cried. “For this abandoned child of Israel, I fast.”
Then Rabbi Akiba took the boy in, bathed him, dressed him and began to teach him the ways of human beings. And when he mastered the ways of civilized human beings, Rabbi Akiba began to teach him what a Jews needs to know: the alphabet, then the grace after meals, the Shema and the Amidah.
It was months after Rabbi Akiba had arrived in the town inquiring after the man, his wife and child that Rabbi Akiba appeared in the synagogue. It was a Shabbat morning and the synagogue was crowded with worshippers. When the Torah was taken from the ark, Rabbi Akiba stood and moved toward the bimah, the place of reading. Everyone in the synagogue rose to welcome the greatest rabbi and teacher of the generation. They anticipated a mighty sermon, words of teaching and wisdom. But the rabbi did not come that morning to offer teaching. He came to rescue a soul.
The rabbi nodded toward the door of the synagogue, and into the synagogue fearfully and nervously, there came a boy. At first, no one recognized him. And then suddenly, someone shouted, “That’s the devil’s son! The child of our enemy!”
Ugly curses and words of contempt filled the synagogue. “After all they did to us, all the destruction and suffering his parents brought us, you would bring such a child among us?” they screamed.
Rabbi Akiba was undeterred. He waved his hand, and the synagogue was silent. Then he gestured to the boy. The boy slowly made his way to the bimah, as if each step was a test, a trial. Then, to the astonishment of the congregation, the boy took hold of the handles of the Torah scroll, and recited in Hebrew “Barchu et Adonai ha’m’vorach” “Praise the Lord, Source of all blessing.” There was silence for a moment, and another, and yet another, as the congregation decided whether to answer the boy’s prayer. And then, one by one, they joined together and chanted the response: “Baruch Adonai ha’m’vorach l’olam va’ed.” “Praise God, Source of all blessing throughout time.”
The boy completed his blessing and read flawlessly from the Torah. Then, great Rabbi Akiba wrapped his arms about the boy and blessed him. And the community came forth and showered him with candies and sweets. The rabbi whispered, “My son, welcome home.”
That night, as he slept, Rabbi Akiba saw in his dreams the man he met in the cemetery. The bundle of sticks on his back was much smaller and the look on his face much brighter. “Thank you, great rabbi. You have rescued my soul from the darkness. You have given me back hope.”
Blessed is the People whose champions are teachers.
Blessed are the Teachers who renew life with the power of Torah.