by Rabbi Jared H. Saks
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781
There’s a famous story from the Talmud – perhaps you’ve heard it – in which Rabbi Akiva, one of the most renowned rabbis of the Talmudic period, is forced to spend a night in a field and everything seems to go wrong. The Gemara relates the following story:
Rabbi Akiva was travelling alone, walking down a long road, when he came to a certain town. Upon his arrival in the village, Rabbi Akiva went door to door asking each resident if they had a spare room, a spot on the floor, or even in the shed, in which he could spend the night. Unfortunately, Akiva was turned away from each door upon which he knocked. Rather than growing frustrated or upset, Rabbi Akiva simply said to himself, “Everything that God does, God does for the best.” Without anywhere else to stay, Rabbi Akiva went to sleep in a field and brought along the few possessions he had with him on his journey: a rooster, a donkey, and a candle.
Almost as soon as he’d begun to settle in for the night, a gust of wind came and blew out his candle. Then, a predator came and ate his rooster. Finally, a lion attacked and consumed the donkey. Each time, Rabbi Akiva responded the same way: “Everything that God does, God does for the best.” That night, an army marched into the area and took all of the villagers into captivity. Had Rabbi Akiva still had his candle, the attackers might have seen its light. Had he still had his rooster, they might have heard it crow. Had he still had his donkey, its bray might have given away his location. As a result, he was spared. This time he said, “Isn’t it as I’ve always told you? Everything that God does, God does for the best.”
If you’re like me, this isn’t a philosophy to which you ascribe. I don’t really think that everything happens for a reason or that things that seem to be tragedies to us are actually blessings in disguise from God’s perspective. We’re right to question this story. As Eli Birnbaum writes for the Times of Israel, “The funny thing about Talmudic and Midrashic stories is that they often come across as slightly too convenient. Not that convenience is a commodity to be sniffed at in this day and age, but the issue stands nonetheless: How much can realistically be extrapolated from a story of doubtful historic accuracy where every domino falls perfectly into place to create the most unlikely of happily-ever-afters?”
The truth is, there are a lot of holes in this story and it is precisely the holes that lead us to its real lesson. Rabbi Akiva was, without doubt, the preeminent scholar of his day. Even more strange than his choice of luggage, which I’ll discuss in a bit, is the fact that not a soul in this village would offer him a room. Unless the entire town was evil, like the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, at least one person should have offered him a room. Even in a pandemic, I imagine many of us, if met with a knock at the door from one of the most renowned scholars of our age, would try to help in some way. But not a soul helps Rabbi Akiva and ultimately, they are all carted off into captivity. But as Eli Birnbaum points out, “An entire town was carted off into captivity is portrayed in exactly the same style as the demise of the candle, rooster, and donkey: Just another domino in the sequence.” It’s just too perfect.
Let’s also consider what Rabbi Akiva has with him. The donkey makes sense. He needs to get from one place to another. But why the candle and the rooster? “There are only two plausible explanations behind Rabbi Akiva leaving home with a lamp: Either he left when it was already dark; or he left by day light, but didn’t expect to find accommodation before nightfall. Neither of these explanations is particularly comforting: Rabbi Akiva’s journey was either something of a secret, or he wasn’t all that confident in finding shelter for the night in the first place.
“And what about the rooster? The master commentator [Rashi] offers a logical explanation: Rabbi Akiva needed it to wake him up in the morning. Think about that for a moment. We’re on a collision course with the same question as above: If Rabbi Akiva expected to be lodging overnight in a populated area – filled with roosters and people who could quite easily provide him with an alarm call whenever he wanted… – why take the rooster in the first place? Unless he anticipated being on his own in the middle of nowhere that evening.”
When we get to the part where the whole village is taken into captivity, it seems too perfect. It must be metaphorical. But what if it’s not? “The thing is, there was an era in Jewish history that intersected with Rabbi Akiva’s life when the wholesale capture and massacre of Jewish towns was sadly all too common: The Hadrianic Decrees preceding and following the Bar Kochba Revolt (132-138 CE).” It was after the destruction of the Temple and Jewish community in the Land of Israel was struggling, especially without access to their worship space. Bar Kochba led a revolt to try to reclaim the Temple, endorsed by Rabbi Akiva. Bar Kochba’s revolt was met with massive Roman military force squashing any hope of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. “Rabbi Akiva became public enemy number one… Suddenly there was a hefty price on his head.”
With this in mind, it is no wonder that every door on which he knocked that night was slammed in his face. “Maybe the townspeople resented him for his role in the uprising. Maybe they blamed him for the widespread vengeance wreaked by an irate Hadrian. Or maybe they sympathized, but couldn’t dare risk opening the door for fear that they and their loved ones would be executed for sheltering a known outlaw.” Rabbi Akiva foresaw this possibility and that’s why he brought the candle and the rooster. He slept in the field and saved himself, but he was unable to save the village.
There’s one other oddity in this story about Rabbi Akiva. It is the story’s closing line: “Isn’t it as I’ve always told you? Everything that God does, God does for the best.” To whom is he speaking? He’s the only one left! The villagers are gone. Surely, he’s not telling the enemy that God intervened to prevent his capture. The answer to this question lies in the three things he had with him. The candle is the light which will banish the darkness of exile. As we read in Psalms, “There I will make a horn sprout for David; I have prepared a lamp for My Messiah.” The donkey, a “symbol of humble yet triumphant hope,” will escort in the Messianic Age, as we read in Zechariah, “Rejoice greatly, daughter of Zion; shout in joy, daughter of Jerusalem! Behold your king is coming to you. He is righteous, triumphant, yet humble – riding on a donkey.” And the rooster’s crow symbolizes the lamp-like sunrise that will cast out the darkness of the broken world. All of these items that Rabbi Akiva brings along are symbols of hope.
So, whom is he addressing at the end of the story? There’s a clue in the original text. Most of it is presented in Aramaic, but this last line is in Hebrew, recognizable to any native speaker in Israel today or any student of Hebrew anywhere in the world across the span of history:
Kol mah she-oseh HaKadosh Baruch Hu hakol l’tovah.
Rabbi Akiva is speaking to us. He is speaking “to every future generation of people who, like him, would stand at the precipice of despair time and again, and see no way out and no way back. To us, he says in a language plain enough to understand: Don’t give up.”
This pandemic has been devastating, deflating, and debilitating. Our lives and our homes have been turned upside down. Almost 200,000 people have died from COVID in our country, some among our own congregation, and we are coming up on a million deaths worldwide. I wouldn’t blame you for feeling hopeless. And I don’t believe there’s some hidden meaning behind this. But that doesn’t mean that I’m without hope. I find hope in the silver linings.
I find hope in the story of Mary Daniel of Jacksonville, Florida, who took a dishwashing job at the assisted living facility where her husband, Steve, is a resident with early-onset Alzheimer’s so that she could see him twice a week during the pandemic.
I find hope in the story of Quinn, a four-year-old in Salt Lake City, Utah, who took his balance bike out for a ride with his parents nearly every evening, much like Kirk and I have done with Zak through this, and triggered the motion-activated camera on Dave Palazzo’s driveway each evening at the same time, as Quinn rode his bike in circles on Dave’s driveway. But Dave didn’t have the typical get-off-my-lawn response. Instead, he took chalk and drew racetracks for Quinn, redrawing them each time the rain washed them away.
I find hope in the story of Tyler and Melanie Tapajna of Parma, Ohio, who had planned a 150-person wedding reception before COVID hit and rather than backing out of their catering contract, arranged for their caterer to provide food for a local shelter.
I find hope in our own Mitzvah Corps, coordinated by Jay Sherwin, which has continued to respond to the needs of members of our community and even folks who have ended up here, like the Massachusetts man on vacation in Maine who had a serious cardiac incident and his family needed homemade meals during their unexpected stay in Maine while he recovered.
Yes, there’s a lot of pain in our world right now. But there’s so much hope. Rabbi Akiva brought the rooster, the donkey, and the candle to remind us to have hope. What are you carrying into the new year to give you hope? Shanah tovah um’tukah. I wish each and every one of you a happy, healthy, and sweet new year.
 B’rachot 60b.
 Psalm 132:17
 Zechariah 9:9