Four entered the orchard:
Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Elisha and Ben Azzai and Ben Zoma.
Ben Zoma gazed and died,
Rabbi Elisha cut down the plantings,
Ben Azzai gazed and was harmed.
Only Rabbi Akiva emerged in peace.
by Yochi Brandes
Translated from the Hebrew by Daniel Libenson
~ Review by Cindy
The Orchard is one of the most profoundly thoughtful, intensely moving, at times keenly troubling, and spellbinding reads I have taken the time to enjoy for a long while.
Yochi Brandes weaves a story of the greatly venerated Rabbi Akiva (born not long after the birth of Yeshua) as told through the eyes of his second wife Rachel. Though fiction, it is rooted in Scripture, historical events, and Talmudic lore. Brandes paints for us the life of Akiva, an illiterate shepherd who meets Rachel, the daughter of one of the richest men in Israel. Though on the brink of betrothal, Rachel is stuck by the heart and mind of Akiva and withdraws from her betrothal. Seeking out Akiva’s company (and hand in marriage) Rachel teaches Akiva to read and marvels at his uniqueness of drawing out meaning not only from the words of Scripture but also from the individual letters and spaces between them. Seeing potential for greatness, Rachel pushes Akiva at the age of 40 to study Torah under Rabbi Eliezer, a leading sage of the post-Temple era.
The Orchard is centered on the life of Rabbi Akiva, but it also tells the story of the rabbis who lived following the destruction of the Second Temple (70 C.E.) and one Rabbi who died just before 70 C.E. – Paul of Tarsus. The Orchard propels the reader into the struggles between the schools of Judaism – the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel, the struggles between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, and the struggles between Israel and Rome. Yochi Brandes also gives a glimpse of the complicated relationship between the Nazarenes and the Sages in this same period.
At times I laughed out loud, other times my heart swelled and overflowed with such warmth and love, and then there were times I wept. Throughout this read I had many sleepless nights of wrestling. Please if you pick up this book don’t expect it to be a happily-ever-after read. It is visceral, raw, and at times heart breaking. But with all that said, The Orchard is fascinating. What a gift to witness arguments for the sake of Heaven.
The Orchard is a deeply moving read, penetrating the heart. It is an experience not to be missed, and also an experience not to be entered into lightly.
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