April 22, 2024
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TABC Post-Finals Hashkafa Kollel: Bar Kochva a Candidate for Mashiach?

What a fabulous three days of learning at TABC! The sixteenth annual post finals learning program at TABC witnessed 25 students, spanning freshmen to graduated seniors, focusing on the critical hashkafic issues of free will and yemot hamashiach. The discussions and debates were deeply insightful, intense and riveting.

The group took a deep dive into the topic of identifying the mashiach. They pondered Rabbi Akiva’s pronouncing Bar Kochva as a viable contender to be the Mashiach. After all, Bar Kochva was hardly a model Torah citizen. According to the Talmud Yerushalmi (Ta’anit 4:5), he required his soldiers to remove a finger in order to be admitted to his army. He even proclaimed to Hashem, “We do not need Your help, but do not harm us either.” Although Bar Kochva was an exceedingly mighty warrior and extraordinarily talented leader, one cannot help but ask how Rabbi Akiva regarded such an individual as one with the potential to fit the role of mashiach?

Theories were bounced off each other and strongly debated. No less than five reasonable approaches were set forth. Some suggested that Rabbi Akiva was unaware of Bar Kochva’s aberrant behavior and that had he received a full report he would not have endorsed Bar Kochva. Others suggested that the desperate nature of Jewish life under Roman rule in Eretz Yisrael, led Rabbi Akiva to lower his standards for a Jewish leader. Another student noted that world conditions were ripe for mashiach as many throughout the world were ready to abandon pagan thought and practice and to adopt basic Jewish values.

Others suggested perhaps Rabbi Akiva meant simply that Bar Kochva was a candidate for Mashiach ben Yosef, who according to the Gemara (Sukkah 52b) precedes and sets the stage for the arrival of Mashiach ben David. Some offered the idea that Rabbi Akiva recognized the great potential of Bar Kochva and that he thought he could mold Bar Kochva into a proper leader. The students reminded us that we see numerous times in the Gemara (such as Makkot 24a and b) that Rabbi Akiva was a consummate optimist. It seems that Rabbi Akiva adopted such an optimistic stance towards Bar Kochva.

Unfortunately, despite all these explanations Rabbi Akiva’s endorsement of Bar Kochva proved disastrous. The Bar Kochva rebellion (as reported in Wikipedia) resulted in the extensive depopulation of Judean communities, more so than during the First Jewish—Roman War of 70 CE. According to the famous Roman historian Cassius Dio, 580,000 Jews perished in the war and many more died of hunger and disease. In addition, many Judean war captives were sold into slavery. The Jewish communities of Judea were devastated to an extent which some scholars describe as genocide. Chazal attribute Bar Kochva’s fall to his terrible action of killing the well-known tanna, Rabbi Elazar haModai, with one swift kick.

Although his vision for Bar Kochva led to disaster, his dream of the restoration of Jewish sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael, has in our times been realized with Hashem’s name, Yitbarach Shmo. For this reason, the iconic religious Zionist youth group is known as Bnei Akiva, since we are following in the path of Rabbi Akiva. Of course, we must be sure to avoid the mistakes of Bar Kochva—we remain steadfast in our emunah in Hashem, take great care to uphold the dignity of every Jew and show great kavod to our chachamim.

We have enjoyed this taste of the delicious learning in which we engaged at this summer’s post-finals learning at TABC. To sit and focus on words of Torah in a relaxed environment is nothing less than a taste of Gan Eden. We look forward to many more opportunities to delve into topics of great interest and concern for our people and raise the banner of limud Torah l’shma at TABC!

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