Many people think that emunah is something that we store away for the extreme case in which we may need it. “Only if I need to die al kiddush HaShem (to sanctify G-d’s name as a martyr)- that’s when I need emunah. That’s when it kicks in”, people think. “But on a day by day basis? Why would I need it, right?”
WRONG! There could be nothing further from the truth! In fact the exact opposite is true. It is an extreme situation such as the above that the strength of our emunah, our commitment, and our resolve is put to the test.
The Gemara in Tractate Berachos on page 61a relates to us a very sad story. It is the story describing the death of Rabbi Akiva. (Very apropos to the time we are in now, about to start the 9 days up until the 9th of Av). The Gemara relates that the Romans flayed Rabbi Akiva alive using iron combs heated until they were red-hot, yet despite the agony, as it was the time to fulfill the mitzvah of Kerias Shema (reciting the Shema parshios from the Torah) Rabbi Akiva, instead, focused on fulfilling that mitzvah.
The Gemara relates that his students, astonished by their Rebbe’s actions, could not hold back and asked him “Rabbenu! Ad kan?” (Our teacher! Until here?) to which Rabbi Akiva responds “All of my life, when I read the words (first verse of the first paragraph of the Shema) u’bechol nafshecha (and with all of your soul) [which means] ‘even if He removes your soul’, I would say to myself ‘When will this come to my hand, so that I should fulfill it’. Now, that it has come to me should I not fulfill it?”
Clearly, this is a very moving Gemara. But on close inspection, it would seem that it is not a very clear Gemara at all. What, exactly, was the students’ question? I mean, it would seem that it’s a “yes” or “no” question. Furthermore, what was Rabbi Akiva’s response? Was it “yes” or was it “no”?
Out of the two, it would seem that the question is clearer than the answer. The students see their Rebbe being tortured in an extremely painful way, and yet he is reciting – at the same time – the verses of Krias Shema and accepting upon himself the yoke of Heaven. So they ask their Rebbe: is a person responsible for reciting the Shema even under such extreme circumstances? Are we commanded to fulfill the mitzvah even “up until here”?
To which Rabbi Akiva answers…? Yes? No? What?
In my humble opinion, I think that the answer he gives is “No”. Under extreme duress, one is not responsible for fulfilling the mitzvah of Kerias Shema. But there is so much more to Kerias Shema then just reciting the words!
The second commandment in the first paragraph of Shema is the mitzvah to love G-d. V’Ahavta es HaShem Elokecha bechol levavcha, u’bechol nafshecha, u’bechol me’odecha, (And you shall love HaShem, your G-d, with all of your heart and with all of your soul and with all of your possessions). Our sages tell us in tractate Berachos that the rest of the verse is really the explanation how to fulfill it. The extent of the mitzvah of loving HaShem is supposed to be so great that a person would be willing to give up everything that he or she has out of love for the Creator. His personal desires (heart), his life (soul) and even all of his possessions (meodecha). All of that should be as nothing in the face of my love of HaShem!
So here was Rabbi Akiva, confronting his mortality face to face, having realized that he is being asked to fulfill the mitzvah of Ahavas HaShem as commanded – even if He demands your soul. So he does it!
But even that’s not the full extent of his answer. He says alot more. If all he were doing was fulfilling the mitzvah of Ahavas HaShem then why recite the Shema? Ahavas HaShem is one of the six constant mitzvos. All a person has to do is stop and think about his/her relationship with G-d during the course of a day and – bam! – he’s fulfilled the mitzvah! No Kerias Shema involved whatsoever!
No, Rabbi Akiva was telling us much more than that!
“Every day”, said R”A, “when I would say the Shema, when I would read the words that define the extent of the mitzvah of Ahavas HaShem, I would stop and think about them for a little while. Bechol levavcha, with all of your heart. Bechol nafshecha, with all of your soul. Ubchol meodecha, and with all of your possessions. At every one of these”, said R”A, “I would stop and say a prayer in my heart (as it is forbidden to say other things during the recitation of Shema) ‘When will this come to my hand so that I could fulfill it!’, I would say to G-d. So now, that it has come to my hand, I should not fulfill it?”
“All the days of my life I utilized the Shema to pray for, and improve upon, my love of G-d. I prayed during the Shema that I should be given the opportunity to fulfill every aspect of the love of HaShem. So even though, al pi halacha, (according to Jewish law), I don’t have to recite the Shema now, since I used it every day, twice a day, to pray that I should fulfill the aspect of loving G-d even if He demands my life, now that it has finally come to me, I should be a hypocrite?”
One might think that the lesson taught here is only about the greatness of Rabbi Akiva, (that’s also there), but it isn’t.
The real lesson that R”A taught here is twofold:
1> Don’t be a hypocrite.
Don’t say you’ll act one way and then act differently. Don’t profess the belief in something only to ignore it when it is inconvenient to you. If you pray that you should merit to do something, if you profess that you really want it, then when you finally get it – do it! (Unless, of course, we are talking about something OTHER than a mitzvah!)
2> We build the emunah that empowers us in the extreme circumstances over years of constant striving and effort. Beyond that it’s built with prayer and tears.
The greatest act of martyrdom al kiddush HaShem is only when it is preceded by living and striving to live a life al kiddush HaShem.
We are surrounded daily with opportunities to grow and strengthen our spiritual selves. The underpinning of all mitzvos is emunah. As we said in the earlier blog Emunah: What’s it For? emunah is constantly adding life to my life.
If you are utilizing your mitzvos as an opportunity, not “just” a responsibility.
If you are treating them as a merit, not just as a burden.
If you recognize that they are a gift, not a curse.
If your attitude is like the above – then you are using your emunah daily to add life to your life and forge a bond of love with HKB”H.
Do you get up in the morning and say the modeh ani prayer, recognizing that another day of opportunity lies in front of you? Or is it just the old, same old, same old?
Do you pray to G-d because that act of conversation with He who created me (and everything else) wants to have a relationship with me, which can only be facilitated by conversation on my part, (His responses come in other forms), or is it just one more thing that I have to do before I can get on with my real life. (….Thanks G-d!)
Is your Torah learning my opportunity to grasp a finite piece of the infinite, or is it something that I do “because that’s just what Jews do”?
Clearly there is plenty of need for emunah on a daily basis! Every day, all day.