The Talmud: Selections, by H. Polano, , at sacred-texts.com
IT is man's duty to thank God for the occurrence of evil even as for the occurrence of good, as it is written, "And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might."
"With all thy heart." With thy propensities towards good and towards evil.
"With all thy soul." Even though he should demand thy life.
"With all thy might." All thy personal possessions. No matter what measure be meted to thee, for good and for evil, be sincerely thankful.
Rabbi Akiba was once travelling through the country, and he had with him an ass, a rooster, and a lamp.
At nightfall he reached a village where he sought shelter for the night without success.
"All that God does is done well," said the Rabbi, and proceeding towards the forest he resolved to pass the night there. He lit his lamp, but the wind extinguished it. "All that God does is done well," he said. The ass and the rooster were devoured by wild beasts; yet still he said no more than "All that God dues is well done."
Next day he learned that a troop of the enemy's soldiers had passed through the forest that night. If the ass had brayed, if the rooster had crowed, or if the soldiers had
seen his light he would surely had met with death, therefore he said again, "All that God does is done well."
It happened once when Rabbi Gamliel, Rabbi Eleazer, the son of Azaria, Rabbi Judah, and Rabbi Akiba were walking together, they heard the shouts and laughter and joyous tones of a multitude of people at a distance. Four of the Rabbis wept; but Akiba laughed aloud.
"Akiba," said the others to him, "wherefore laugh? These heathens who worship idols live in peace, and are merry, while our holy city lies in ruins; weep, do not laugh." '
"For that very reason I laugh, and am glad," answered Rabbi Akiba. "If God allows these who transgress His will to live happily on earth, how infinitely great must be the happiness which He has stored up in the world to come for those who observe His commands."
Upon another occasion these same Rabbis went up to Jerusalem. Whey they reached Mount Zophim and saw the desolation about them they rent their garments, and when they reached the spot where the Temple had stood and saw a fox run out from the very site of the holy of holies four of them wept bitterly; but again Rabbi Akiba appeared merry. His comrades again rebuked him for this, to them, unseemly state of feeling.
"Ye ask me why I am merry," said he; "come now, tell me why ye weep?"
'Because the Bible tells us that a stranger (one not descended from Aaron) who approaches the holy of holies shall be put to death, and now behold the foxes make of it a dwelling-place. Why should we not weep?"
"Ye weep," returned Akiba, "from the very reason which causes my heart to be glad. Is it not written, 'And testify
to me, ye faithful witnesses, Uriah, the priest, and Zachariah, the son of Berachiahu?' Now what hath Uriah to do with Zachariah? Uriah lived during the existence of the first Temple, and Zachariah during the second. Know ye not that the prophecy of Uriah is compared to the prophecy of Zachariah. From Uriah's prophecy we find, 'Therefore for your sake Zion will be ploughed as is a field, and Jerusalem will be a desolation, and the mount of Zion shall be as a forest;' and in Zachariah we find, 'They will sit, the old men and women, in the streets of Jerusalem?' Before the prophecy of Uriah was accomplished I might have doubted the truth of Zachariah's comforting words; but now that one has been accomplished, I feel assured that the promises to Zachariah will also come to pass, therefore am I glad."
"Thy words comfort us, Akiba," answered his companions. "May God ever provide us comfort."
Still another time, when Rabbi Eleazer was very sick and his friends and scholars were weeping for him, Rabbi Akiba appeared happy, and asked them why they wept. "Because," they replied, "our beloved Rabbi is lying between life and death." "Weep not, on the contrary be glad therefor," he answered. "If his wine did not grow sour, if his flag was not stricken down, I might think that on earth he received the reward of his righteousness; but now that I see my teacher suffering for what evil he may have committed in this world, I rejoice. He hath taught us that the most righteous among us commits some sin, therefore in the world to come he will have peace."
While Rabbi Eleazer was sick, the four elders, Rabbi Tarphon, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Eleazer, the son of Azoria and Rabbi Akiba, called upon him.
"Thou art better to Israel than the raindrops to earth,
or the raindrops are for this world only, whilst thou, my teacher, have helped the ripening of fruit for this world and the next," said Rabbi Tarphon.
"Thou art better to Israel than the sun, for the sun is for this world alone; thou hast given light for this world and the next," said Rabbi Joshua.
Then spoke Rabbi Eleazer, the son of Azoria:
"Thou art better to Israel," said he, "than father and mother to man. They bring him into the world, but thou, my teacher, showest him the way into the world of immortality."
Then said Rabbi Akiba:
"It is well that man should be afflicted, for his distresses atone for his sins."
"Does the Bible make such an assertion, Akiba?" asked his teacher.
"Yes," answered Akiba. "'Twelve years old was Manassah when he became king, and fifty-and-five years did he reign in Jerusalem, and he did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord' (Kings). Now, how was this? Did Hezekiah teach the law to the whole world and not to his son Manassah? Assuredly not; but Manassah paid no attention to his precepts, and neglected the word of God until he was afflicted with bodily pain, as it is written (Chron. 33: 10), 'And the Lord spoke to Manassah and to his people, but they listened not, wherefore the Lord brought over them the captains of the armies belonging to the king of Assyria, and they took Manassah prisoner with chains, and bound him with fetters, and led him off to Babylon; and when he was in distress he besought the Lord his God, and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. And he prayed to Him, and He permitted Himself to be entreated by him and heard his supplication, and brought
him back to Jerusalem unto his kingdom. Then did Manassah feel conscious that the Lord is indeed the (true) God.'
"Now, what did the king of Assyria to Manassah? He placed him in a copper barrel and had a fire kindled beneath it, and while enduring great torture of his body, Manassah was further tortured in his mind. 'Shall I call upon the Almighty?' he thought. 'Alas! His anger burns against me. To call upon my idols is to call in vain,--alas, alas, what hope remains to me!'
"He prayed to the greatest of his idols, and waited in vain for a reply. He called to the lesser gods, and remained unanswered. Then with trembling heart he addressed the great Eternal.
"'O Eternal! God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their descendants, the heavens and the earth are the works of Thy hand. Thou didst give to the sea a shore, controlling with a word the power of the mighty deep. Thou art merciful as Thou art great, and Thou hast promised to accept the repentance of those who return to Thee with upright hearts. As numerous are my sins as the sands which cover the seashore. I have done evil before Thee, committing abominations in Thy presence and acting wickedly. Bound with fetters I come before Thee, and on my knees I entreat Thee, in the name of Thy great attributes of mercy, to compassionate my suffering and my distress. Pardon me, oh Lord, forgive me. Do not utterly destroy me because of my transgressions. Let not my punishment eternally continue. Though I am unworthy of Thy goodness, O Lord, yet save me in Thy mercy. Henceforth will I praise Thy name all the days of my life, for all Thy creatures delight in praising Thee, and unto Thee is the greatness and the goodness for ever and ever, Selah!"
"God heard this prayer, even as it is written, 'And He permitted Himself to be entreated by him, and brought him back to Jerusalem unto his kingdom.'"
"From which we may learn," continued Akiba, "that affliction is an atonement for sin."
Said Rabbi Eleazer, the great, "It is commanded 'thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy soul and with all that is loved by thee.'
"Does not 'with all thy soul' include 'with all that is loved by thee?'
"Some people love themselves more than they love their money; to them ‘tis said, 'with all thy soul;' while for those who love their money more than themselves the commandment reads, 'with all that is loved by thee.'"
But Rabbi Akiba always expounded the words, "with all thy soul," to mean "even though thy life be demanded of thee."
When the decree was issued forbidding the Israelites to study the law, what did Rabbi Akiba?
He installed many congregations secretly, and in secret lectured before them.
Then Papus, the son of Juda, said to him:
"Art not afraid, Akiba? Thy doings may be discovered, and thou wilt be punished for disobeying the decree."
"Listen, and I will relate to thee a parable," answered Akiba. "A fox, walking by the river side, noticed the fishes therein swimming and swimming to and fro, never ceasing; so he said to them, 'Why are ye hurrying, what do ye fear?'
"'The nets of the angler,' they replied.
"'Come, then,' said the fox, 'and live with me on dry land.'
"But the fishes laughed.
"'And art thou called the wisest of the beasts?' they exclaimed; 'verily thou art the most foolish. If we are in danger even in our element, how much greater would be our risk in leaving it.'
"It is the same with us. We are told of the law that it is 'our life and the prolongation of our days.' This is it when things are peaceful with us; how much greater is our need of it then in times like these?"
It is said that it was but shortly after this when Rabbi Akiba was imprisoned for teaching the law, and in the prison in which he was incarcerated he found Papus, who had been condemned for some other offence.
Rabbi Akiba said to him:
"Papus, what brought thee here?"
And Papus replied:
"Joy, joy, to thee, that thou art imprisoned for studying God's law; but woe, woe is mine that I am here through vanity."
When Rabbi Akiba was led forth to execution, it was just at the time of the morning service.
"'Hear, oh Israel! the Lord our God, the Lord is one,'" he exclaimed in a loud and firm voice.
The torturers tore his flesh with pointed cards, yet still he repeated, "The Lord is one."
"Always did I say," he continued, "that 'with all thy soul,' meant even though life should be demanded of thee, and I wondered whether I should ever be able to so observe it. Now see, to-day, I do so; 'the Lord is one.'"
With these words he died.
Happy art thou, Rabbi Akiba, that thy soul went out in purity for the happiness of all futurity is thine.