It happened. Rabbi Maimon suggested a nice idea regarding the historical background of this episode. Even though it is not clear whether it is historically accurate, it sheds essential light on understanding the milieu in which these five sages lived and were active. Rabbi Maimon asks: why did these four great Tannaim leave their homes on the Seder night to travel to B'nei Brak, the home of Rabbi Akiva. Indeed, according to the Talmud, each of the other four Tannaim had houses of study in other cities. More than this: given that they wanted to sit together – why at the house of Rabbi Akiva, who was considered the student in relation to the others? His explanation is that this episode occurred during the period of preparation for the revolt of Bar Kochba – whose arms-bearer and one of the leaders of the revolt, was Rabbi Akiva ( Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim/Laws of Kings 11:3). It should also be noted that the Rambam writes that the other sages of the generation also supported Bar Kochba. Accordingly, when these five sages sat in B'nei Brak, precisely at the place of Rabbi Akiva who was at the center of the revolt, they engaged not only in recounting the Exodus from Egypt in the past tense, but – and principally - the “Exodus from Egypt” of their own time. As is well known, the first redemption was a portent for the final Redemption. This means that in order to understand the fundaments of the final Redemption – which is predicated on faith, self-sacrifice and Kiddush Hashem – the fundaments of the first redemption must be learned thoroughly. Therefore, studying the first redemption, and studying the final Redemption, are one and the same thing! As is known, the Bar Kochba Revolt occurred about 60 years after the destruction of the Second Temple. Nevertheless, the belief and the understanding that it was possible to bring the Redemption today, if you would hearken to His voice still beat in the hearts of these leaders of Israel.
For regarding the last exile (as opposed to the Babylonian exile [of 70 years]), no fixed period was ever predetermined. And so, they sat throughout that night, discussing the present revolt, whose purpose was to usher in that day which would be greater than the Exodus from Egypt (See the Talmud, Berachot 13a). For if one sits and tells of the Exodus from Egypt as belonging only to the past, and does nothing for the current Redemption – then what value is there in all the stories he tells on the Seder night? For him, the recitation of the Haggadah really is, as Rabbi Yehuda ha-Levi described it, “like the twittering of a starling”! And in this context, it should be noted that Rabbi Menachem Kasher, in his book ha-Tekufah ha-Gedolah (“The Great Era”), writes that in this generation, the obligation of the Seder night is to relate not only the story of the Exodus from Egypt, but also the miracles of our generation – those miracles of the beginning of the Redemption, which were greater even than the miracles of the Hasmoneans. These miracles, and the events that the Jewish nation has undergone for a century past, can also bring the Jew to faith. As with the Exodus from Egypt, we again saw that out of total despair and terrible humiliation, we arose and revived our nation – after everyone had already eulogized us. And in the same vein, we can add that we should not only sit and recount the miracles, but rather – like Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues – we should sit and discuss the future continuation of the Redemption process. We must ponder how to advance the Redemption, how to smooth the road to Redemption, and how to continue in the path of Bar Kochba and Rabbi Akiva in order to bring the Redemption that is knocking at the gate – immediately, quickly, and without unnecessary suffering – for it is not enough to sit and wait for the Mashiach, we must actively bring him. According to this explanation, the sages did not notice that the time for the morning Shema had arrived, not just because they were engrossed in deep discussion, but also because, for reasons of secrecy, they were sitting in a place that sunlight would never reach.
Our Rabbis! The time has come for the recitation of the morning Shema! This call can also be explained as hinting at something deeper. The recitation of the Shema is the symbol par excellence of the acceptance of the yoke of Heaven, which brings one to self-sacrifice. Rabbi Akiva said, when he was executed by the Romans, that he had always been concerned that he might not have the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of sacrificing his very life for Kiddush Hashem: When will my chance come to fulfill it? And his soul departed with the word echad (“one”). Hence, these students were telling their rabbis: Our Rabbis! The time has come to accept unto ourselves the yoke of Heaven, and to go forth and to revolt against the Romans who oppress and humiliate the Jewish nation and desecrate the Name of Heaven. We can thereby bring the Redemption, even at the price of supreme self-sacrifice. For one of the conditions for redemption is self- sacrifice. Indeed two of the sages mentioned here, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon, are among the Ten Martyrs; and several of the Ten Martyrs were students of these sages. The Romans killed them for violating their decrees and, as already mentioned, for their active involvement in the Bar Kochba revolt. Significantly, one of the decrees of the Romans in that generation was the prohibition of reciting the Shema. Rabbi Meir said: Once we were sitting in front of Rabbi Akiva in the Beit ha-Midrash; we were reading the Shema, but we were not reciting it audibly, because of a Roman soldier who was standing by the door. (Tosefta Berachot 2:13) Apparently, this statement is a similar encoded hint of resistance to Roman occupation, along the lines of the commentary on the preceding section.
The time has come for the recitation of the morning Shema. These five Tannaim were sitting and discussing the “Exodus from Egypt” of their generation, i.e. planning how to bring about the final Redemption; and, as we just explained, this is of paramount importance. How, then, can the recital of the Shema take precedence over this? There are two answers: First, Judaism demands precision in the tiniest details of the mitzvot, and one who treats the small details (which might appear to be of secondary importance) lightly, will eventually treat the major principles lightly. Unfortunately, we have seen this in our generation: Some of the greatest thinkers in the nationalist movement abandoned the details of the mitzvot, according them secondary importance, preferring to deal with the “truly important” issues. But ultimately, since the absolute values of Torah did not define their framework, they began to compromise; and having begun to compromise on minor nationalist issues, their compromises became progressively greater, until they conceded those “truly important” issues as well – and, eventually, lost their entire ideology.
Second, the commandment of reciting the Shema is, as we have already said, a declaration of the acceptance of the yoke of Heaven, which is the foundation of all – and it is also the way to bring the Redemption. We must always remember this: when working to bring the Redemption, we must always remain within the framework that G-d has dictated. It is He who establishes the rules and conditions for the Redemption. And the truth is that some of the central conditions of the Redemption fundamentally oppose the ideals of Western culture, which – unfortunately – greatly influence even those who speak highly of the Redemption. We must remember that to bring the Redemption, the first basic condition is acceptance of the yoke of Heaven. And this demands that we accept G-d's dictates in the nationalist sphere, too, whether we understand His reasons, or not, whether they are “acceptable” to us or not; for we are not “nationalists” - we are servants of Hashem.
Self-sacrifice has always been the central condition for hastening the redemption; and so is it in our days. The primary repentance that G-d demands for hastening the Redemption and preventing the terrible sufferings of the birth-pangs of the Mashiach is a return to genuine trust in G-d, tried and proven by our willingness to endanger ourselves for the sake of those mitzvot which appear “dangerous”. These mitzvot include annexation, and open and unabashed settlement of all parts of the Land of Israel; driving the Gentiles out of the Land without fear of what the nations (including America) will say; removing the foreigners from the Temple Mount and implementing our sovereignty there.
May we merit to properly fulfill the mitzvah of telling the Passover story, and to act upon the practical conclusions derived from learning about the first Redemption. Have a happy and kosher Passover.
Excerpted by Tzipora Liron-Pinner from “The Haggada of the Jewish Idea” by Rav Binyamin Ze'ev Kahane HY”D (English edition, translated by Daniel Pinner)