In the words of Mark Twain, "The Egyptian, the Babylonian and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone… All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains." And what about the French, the British and the Americans. How long until they too are relegated to the quiet halls of museum exhibitions visited only by curious strangers—and by Jews.
True, Am Yisroel Chai, the Jewish people live. And so do Rabbi Yishmael, Rabbi Akiva and the other martyrs. Their words have guided and inspired us for all of these centuries. But what's more, in a sense, they still speak to us. Everyday, countless students of the Talmud, of Jewish thought and wisdom, study their words in schools and yeshivot all over the world. Their words are alive, seriously reckoned with and hotly debated. We live because they live. But if they pass, what will become of us?
Triumph of the Spirit - A Look at the Martyrs
Rabbi Akiva is one of the most famous names in Jewish history. At the age of forty he was an illiterate shepherd who detested the rabbis of his day.
One day, Akiva noticed a rock that had a small, smooth hole bored through it. He soon noticed that the hole had been created by droplets of water that were dripping onto the rock. "If a drop of water can penetrate a stone," he thought, "then surely the words of Torah can penetrate my heart." This realization sparked a transformation that saw the ignorant Akiva grow into the great Rabbi Akiva, teacher of his nation.
In the end, Rabbi Akiva was tortured to death by the Romans for the crime of teaching Torah. The last words he uttered were, Shema Yisroel…
Rabbi Chananya ben Teradyon
Rabbi Chananya ben Teradyon was one of the preeminent sages of his day, yet more than anything he was known as a man with an overriding concern for the poor. His efforts to raise funds on their behalf are legendary.
In the end, he too became a victim of Roman savagery. Before they burned him at the stake, the Romans wrapped his body in a Torah scroll and packed tufts of water-soaked wool around his heart to delay his death and prolong the suffering.
Like Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Chananya ben Teradyon in his final moments continued to embody the triumph of a noble soul. His final words to his disciples were, "I see the parchment burning, but the letters are flying to heaven."
Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava
Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava was fearless in his commitment to the continuity of Judaism, even in the face of the frenzied Roman drive to crush the Jewish spirit. In their attempt to vanquish the Jews, the Romans hunted down the sages of Israel and outlawed the ordination of new rabbis.
Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava ignored the threat of death that followed him everywhere. He did all he could to teach, inspire and ordain a new generation of rabbis.
Our tradition says that when he was finally caught, the Roman spears turned his body into a sieve. But the new leaders he inspired lived on, as did the Jewish people.
Ki Anu Amecha / For We Are Your People
This prayer is usually sung by the congregation together with the chazzan (cantor). In truth, it is a love song. Each verse expresses another facet of the relationship between God and the Jewish people.
Wherever there is depth in a relationship there is also endless nuance and subtlety, each depicting another dimension of a much greater and deeper totality.
This article is an excerpt from "Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit". This book masterfully blends wisdom, humor and down-to-earth spirituality. It's like having a knowledgeable friend sitting right next to you in the synagogue.