The Pesach Haggada states, that five Sages, Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues, were telling of the Exodus from Egypt all night, until their disciples came and said to them, "Our Rabbis, the time for the recital of the morning Shema has arrived."
The Seder is all about parents telling their children about the Exodus story. So where were the families of these great Rabbis?
The Aruch HaShulchan in his commentary on the Haggada, states that this Seder in Bnei Brak took place after the destruction of the Second Temple and during the Hadrianic persecutions. This was one of the most tragic and despairing eras in Jewish History. The Bar Kochba uprising had proven to be a failure to recapture sovereignty over the Land of Israel. The collective soul of Israel was crushed as Jewish Rabbinic leaders (10 Martyrs) were being tortured to death. A long and bitter exile loomed on the horizon for the Jewish People. And then came the Yom Tov of Pesach. How could the Jews possibly celebrate a Pesach Seder of freedom in the midst of persecution, terror and despair? The families of these great Rabbis were hiding in their basements.
During this period of dashed hopes and failed expectations, there was no greater person of faith among the Jewish people than Rabbi Akiva. Everything about him suggested a spirit of incomparable optimism. Despite the fact that he had been the main spiritual inspiration for the failed Bar Kochba rebellion, he never surrendered to despair.
In one amazing incident in the Talmud (Makot 24), R' Gamliel, R' Akiva, R' Elazar ben Azaria, and R' Yehoshua (3 of these 4 Sages having also been at the Seder in Bnei Brak), were walking on Mt. Scopus, when they spotted a fox emerging from the place of the Holy of Holies on the Temple Mount. The other Rabbis began to cry, but R' Akiva laughed. When they asked him to explain the reason for his laughter, R' Akiva explained that since the presence of the foxes confirmed the truth of the prophecy of destruction, the prophecy of the future redemption of Israel will certainly come true.
R' Akiva is the figure who represents total faith in Hashem, and total faith in the future destiny of the Jewish People. His own death full of suffering, serves as one of the most spiritually powerful moments in our tragic history. R' Akiva was sentenced to death for refusing to obey the Hadrianic laws that prohibited the teaching of Torah.
The Talmud states, "When R' Akiva was taken out for execution, it was the hour for the recital of the Sh'ma. And while the Romans tore his flesh with iron combs, he accepted upon himself the Kingship of Heaven. His disciples were amazed, they cried, "'Rebbe, even on to this point?' Dying, his body tortured, R' Akiva explained that until then he had never had the opportunity of fulfilling the Mitzva to love Hashem with all your soul. Now that I have that chance, shall I not fulfill it?" (B'rachot 61).
The Sh'ma is our testimony to our belief in the Final Redemption. "Hear Israel, Hashem who is now only accepted by us as our G-D, will eventually be accepted by the UN and the EU as the One and Only true G-D." This is the meaning of the Sh'ma as explained by the Talmud. With his dying breath, this is the final legacy of faith and optimism which R' Akiva left to all future generations.
Thus, we invite Rabbi Akiva to inspire our own Pesach Seder each and every year.