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    For the Time Being

    Excerpted from
    For the Time Being
    By Annie Dillard

    In 135 C.E., the Romans killed Rabbi Akiva for teaching Torah. They killed him by flaying his skin and stripping his bones with currycombs. He was eighty-five years old. A Roman currycomb in those days was an iron scraper; its blunt teeth combed mud and burrs from horsehair. To flay someone-an unusual torture-the wielder had to bear down. Perhaps the skin and muscles of an old scholar are comparatively loose.

    "All depends on the preponderance of good deeds," Rabbi Akiva had said The weight of good deeds bears down on the balance scales. Paul Tillich also held this view. If the man who stripped Rabbi Akiva's bones with a currycomb bore down with a weight of, say, two hundred psi, how many pounds of good deeds would it take to tip the balance to the good?

    "Are we only talking to ourselves in an empty universe?" a twentieth-century novelist asked. "The silence is often so emphatic. And we have prayed so much already."

    (Since this book hails thinkers for their lights, and pays scant heed to their stripes, I should acknowledge here that Judaism and Christianity, like other great religions, have irreconcilable doctrinal differences, both within and without. Rabbi Pinhas: "The principal danger of man is religion.")

    Akiva ben Joseph was born in the Judean lowlands in 50 C.E. He was illiterate and despised scholarship; he worked herding sheep. Then he fell in love with a rich man's daughter. She agreed to marry him only when he vowed to devote his life to studying Torah. So he did. He learned to read along with their son.

    Rabbi Akiva systematized, codified, explained, analyzed, and amplified the traditional religious laws and practices in his painstaking Mishnah and Midrash. Because of Akiva, Mishnah and Midrash joined Scripture itself in Judaism's canon. His interpretations separated Judaism from both Christian and Greek influences.

    His contemporaries prized him for his tireless interpretation of each holy detail of Torah. They cherished him for his optimism, his modesty, his universalism (which included tolerance of, and intermarriage with, Samaritans), and his devotion to Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel. He taught that "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself' is the key idea in Torah

    Nelly Sachs wrote, Who is like You, O Lord, among the silent, remaining silent through the suffering of His children?

    Emperor Hadrian of Rome had condemned Rabbi Akiva to his henchman and executioner, Rufus. Rufus was present in the prison cell as the currycombs separated the man's skin and muscles from his bones. Some of Rabbi Akiva's disciples were there too, likely on the street, watching and listening at the cell window.

    Rabbi Akiva had taught his disciples to say, "Whatever the all-merciful does he does for the good." During Akiva's innovative execution he was reciting the Shema, because it was the time of day when one recited the Shema. It was then that his disciples remonstrated with him, saying, "Our master, to such an extent?"

    Spooked that the dwindling rabbi continued to say prayers, Rufus asked him, conversationally, if he was a sorcerer. Rabbi Akiva replied that he was happy to die for God. He said he had worshiped the Lord with all his heart, and with all his mind, and now he could add, "with all my soul."

    After Rabbi Akiva's death, Elijah himself entered the Roman prison where his bloody skeleton lay, lifted it up, and, accompanied by many angels, took it to Caesarea in Israel. There Elijah deposited the remains in a comfortable cave, which promptly sealed itself and has never been found.

    When Rabbi Akiva died, Moses was watching from heaven. Moses saw the torture and martyrdom, and complained to God about it. Why did God let the Romans flay an eighty-five-year-old Torah scholar9 Moses' question-the tough one about God's allowing human, moral evil-is reasonable only if we believe that a good God causes, or at any rate allows, everything that happens, and that it's all for the best. (This is the doctrine Voltaire, and many another thinker before and since, questioned-or in Voltaire's case, mocked.)

    God told Moses, "Shtok, keep quiet. Kakh or bemakhshava lefanai, this is how I see things." In another version of the same story, God replied to Moses, "Silence! This is how it is in the highest thought."

    Rabbi Akiva taught a curious solution to the ever-galling problem that while many good people and their children suffer enormously, many louses and their children prosper and thrive in the pink of health. God punishes the good, he proposed, in this short life, for their few sins, and rewards them eternally in the world to come. Similarly, God rewards the evil-doers in this short life for their few good deeds, and punishes them eternally in the world to come. I do not know how that sat with people. It is, like every ingenious, Godfearing explanation of natural calamity, harsh all around.

    Is it not late? A late time to be living? Are not our generations the crucial ones? For we have changed the world. Are not our heightened times the important ones? For we have nuclear bombs. Are we not especially significant because our century is?-our century and its unique Holocaust, its refugee populations, its serial totalitarian exterminations; our century and its antibiotics, silicon chips, men on the moon, and spliced genes? No, we are not and it is not. These times of ours are ordinary times, a slice of life like any other. Who can bear to hear this, or who will consider it? Though perhaps we are the last generation-now there's a comfort. Take the bomb threat away and what are we? Ordinary beads on a never-ending string. Our time is a routine twist of an improbable yarn.

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