Don't Forget to Smile
The ancient rabbis told a story about the death Rabbi Akiba at the hand of Turnus Rufus. Turnus was the Roman governor posted in Judea during first half of the second century (from 130 to 134 C.E.) responsible for the dejudaisation of Jerusalem. He made many laws making it illegal for the Jews to practice their faith with harsh punishments for those who chose to defy him.
As the story goes, while Turnus was torturing R. Akiba the time had come to recite the Shema1. As he began to recite the prayer R. Akiba smiled and Turnus said to him, “old man, old man! You are either an imbecile or you are contemptuous of suffering.”2
R. Akiba responded, “Blast your bones! I am neither an imbecile nor am I contemptuous of suffering. But all my life I read this verse and was distressed thinking, when will I fulfill the three of them?: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your money3. I loved him with all my heart. I loved him with all my money. But I was never tested by ‘with all your soul.’ But now the opportunity for ‘with all your soul’ has come and the time for reciting the Shema has arrived, my mind has not wavered. Because of this I recite and smile.”
The story ends with the words “He hardly finished saying it [the Shema] when he died."4 The ancient story tells of the courage and piety of a Rabbi who in his final moments realized what it meant to love God with all that he had; not only with all his heart, and resources, but also with his very life. Or in the words of the Torah, with all his soul (The soul represents the self and being of a person. The soul is the entirety of a person).
This story was told to bring courage to those who were suffering. Although not all may be tortured and killed for their faith, all will come to a place where their situation will reduce them to nothing, and it is there where they will be granted the joy of loving God with all their soul. They will smile not because the situation is pleasant, but because of the opportunity to love God with all their soul. One of my favorite authors once wrote, “nothing is apparently more helpless, yet really more invincible, than the soul that feels it’s nothingness and relies wholly on God.”5
Have you had the opportunity to love God with all your soul? Do you have the opportunity now? For it is written: I said to Yahweh, “You are my Lord; I have nothing good besides You.” (Ps 16:2 HCSB)
Don't forget to smile.
1- The Shema is a prayer found in Deut 6:4-9 that Jews recite to this day in the morning and in the evening
2- The whole story can be found in Yerushalami Berakhot 9:5, 14:b
3- This is my translation of Deut 6:5. English versions translate "money" to strengh but the literal Hebrew would be muchness. The idea behind muchness is abundance. That is why I have translated it to money. R.Akiva saw it as much,
4- The Babylonian Talmud has a different ending for the story and captures the moment from his deciples pespective. He died on the Eve of Yom Kippor reciting the proclomation of Gods oness. "His disciples said to him: Our teacher, even to this point? He said to them: All my days I have been troubled by this verse, 'with all thy soul', [which I interpret,] 'even if He takes thy soul'. I said: When shall I have the opportunity of fulfilling this? Now that I have the opportunity shall I not fulfil it? He prolonged the word אֶחָד [one] until he expired while saying it." -Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Berakoth 61b 17-19a
5- White, E.G. Patriarchs and Prophets pg.175