Would You Fall Asleep in Rabbi Akiva’s Sermon?
Few midrashim startle us as much as the one which begins “Rabbi Akiva was sitting and preaching and the public was falling asleep….” Akiva was the greatest of all the early rabbis, yet his audiences did what congregations have been doing for centuries; they fell asleep during his sermon.
In what appears to be a remarkable anti-climax, the Midrash continues “He wanted to wake them up. He said, ‘What enabled Esther to rule over 127 provinces? It was the fact that Esther was a descendant of Sarah, who lived for 127 years that enabled her to rule over 127 provinces.” (Bereshit Rabbah 58,6)
Would an answer like that wake you up? Would you even take any interest in the question?
But like all midrashim, to appreciate it we need to look beneath the surface. We can assume that Akiva was preaching around the time of Purim, when we read the book of Esther in which her eventual husband, King Ahasuerus, ruled over 127 provinces. And we read in Genesis 23,1 that Sarah lived to the age of 127. Akiva was not drawing a parallel between Esther and Sarah due to some coincidental numerical equivalence. He was challenging his congregation to wake up and think. What do Esther and Sarah have in common, and what lessons can we draw from this?
It turns out that these two biblical characters have much in common: They each have a royal identity: the name Sarah means princess and Esther is a queen. They each had their names changed before assuming their royal status; Sarah was born Sarai and Esther was born Hadassah. They each left their homeland before settling in the land when they fulfilled their destiny.
They are each praised for their beauty. Abraham says to Sarah “Now I know that you are a beautiful woman”. Esther is “Beautiful and fair to look at”. They are each taken, as young women, into a king’s harem; Sarah by Pharaoh and Esther by Ahasuerus.
Each in their own way enables the Jewish nation to survive; Sarah as the ancestress, Esther through diplomacy. In a patriarchal age, each of them has a clearer insight than the men. Abraham is told “everything that Sarah tells you, listen to her voice”. Mordechai “did everything which Esther had commanded him”.
Akiva’s apparently trite remark was a challenge to his dozing audience. He asked a question, in such a way that it would leave them scratching their heads. Akiva isn’t known for trivialities; even the most disengaged congregant must have wondered what he was getting at by equating Esther’s provinces with Sarah’s age. He was doing what good preachers throughout the ages have done; he was educating his audience by challenging them to identify the problem he set and to work out its solution. And among the lessons that can be derived from the comparison is that at moment of great historical significance, solutions come from the women, not the men.
That was Akiva’s aim when he made his throwaway comment. Of course we will never know if he succeeded. Or if he even managed to wake the congregation up.