By Rabbi David L. Abramson
Many years ago, I toured Beit Guvrin, an archaeological site less than an hour’s drive from Jerusalem. The site contains hundreds of underground, bell-shaped caves, many of which are excavated.
As we crouched inside one of the small caves, the tour guide reminded us of that story, read toward the beginning of the Haggadah, about the seder in B’nai B’rak, in which Rabbi Akiva and colleagues discussed the Exodus from Egypt all through the night — so engrossed in their study that their students came in to tell them that it was time to say their morning prayers.
“Notice what it feels like in this cave,” the tour guide told us. “This is what it probably felt like for Rabbi Akiva and the others.”
A contemporary explanation suggests that this wasn’t a simple seder. Rather, Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues had gathered to plan the Bar Kokhba Revolt, an unsuccessful rebellion against Rome a few generations after the destruction of the Temple. And their students’ reminder about morning prayers was really a coded message: Break up the meeting; the Romans are coming.
Yet another explanation comes to mind: The rabbis were gathered to confront existential questions: How will we survive under Roman persecution? How will we survive without the Temple? How will survive without freedom?
“Notice what it feels like in this cave,” the tour guide had told us. “This is what it probably felt like for Rabbi Akiva and the others.” Almost two decades later, I still remember what it felt like. I remember the cold, moist feel of the stone walls, the dank smell of that ancient cave, the claustrophobic sense caused by the sloping walls and low ceiling.
Those feelings came back as we prepared to hunker down and to experience a seder unlike any we have experienced before. Now, we’re all crouched in that cave — wondering if we will survive the COVID-19 infection, if we will survive the social isolation that the pandemic requires of us, wondering if we will feel normal again.
Just as the seder challenges us to travel through time and space to learn and relearn the lessons of Pesach — we travel to ancient Egypt, to the Holy Land occupied by foreign oppressors, even to our messianic future — the story of that famous seder in B’nai B’rak challenges us to learn the lessons that those rabbis learned so long ago.
Judaism and the Jewish people survived — and we will survive. Of course they were struggling and suffering, but they survived. Things would get worse for them before they got, better and surely our history in the 19 centuries following has known no small amount of suffering.
Nevertheless, Judaism and the Jewish people have flourished, in innumerable ways over the millennia, despite the challenges and struggles. Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues learned the lessons of persistence, of commitment, of hope, of realistic optimism even in the direst circumstances.
Rabbi David L. Abramson is an adjunct rabbi at Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, a chaplain at the Hebrew Home and for the Jewish Social Service Agency, and a teacher at Shoresh Hebrew High School.