Death Defying Heroism: Roi Klein and Rabbi Akiva

May 26, 2024

What would you say if you knew you were about to die? You probably don’t want to “picture this,” but just pretend for a moment that you are seconds away from death and it’s time to say your last words. What would they be? “I love you” – to your close family? Or “I’m sorry” –  perhaps as a last-minute opportunity to repent. For two Jewish heroes, their last words were identical: The words of the Shema prayer. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”

These were the last words whispered from the lips of Roi Klein, a young Israeli soldier killed in Lebanon in 2006, and the revered Bible scholar Rabbi Akiva, who was tortured to death by the Romans in the 2nd century CE. Despite being separated by 2,000 years, their final words revealed the same thing: 

Roi Klein and Rabbi Akiva both had an unwavering commitment to their faith and an enduring declaration of the superiority of God. Something I think we should all aspire to bring into our daily lives. 

Roi Klein (pronounced Row-ee) is a well-known hero among Israelis. In the last decade, many parents, including some of my own friends, have named their children “Roi” after this modern-day hero, hoping their kids will embody his courage and dedication to Israel. But who was the real Roi?

In the summer of 2006, Roi was a 31-year-old soldier serving with the Golani Brigade during the 2006 Lebanon War. Like many men and women in Israel, Roi was in the reserves, a  role where former soldiers can be called into active service if needed.It’s part of a collective responsibility Israelis feel towards their country. 

In addition to being in the army, Roi was also married. He and his wife had two young boys, and a full and exciting life awaited them. But everything changed on July 26th. 

On that day, Roi’s unit was engaged in  a fierce battle against terrorists in the village of Bint Jbeil. Suddenly, a grenade was thrown over the wall where Roi’s unit was positioned. Without hesitation, Roi threw himself onto the grenade, absorbing the blast with his body to save his fellow soldiers. His unit even tried to evacuate him after the blast, doing everything they could to save his life. But Roi insisted that they focus their efforts on other wounded soldiers. He knew his time had come. As he lay dying, his last words were the ancient Biblical verse and Jewish prayer, 

Roi’s selfless courage saved many lives and left a permanent mark on Israel. Not only are Israeli children named after him, but schools across the country carry his name. Roi’s’ story is a powerful reminder of the values of duty, sacrifice, and faith deeply ingrained in the Israeli spirit.

Nearly two millennia before Roi Klein’s heroic death, another act of Jewish martyrdom took place under horrific circumstances. Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest sages in Jewish history, was executed by the Romans for teaching the Bible and embodying Jewish pride.

During the 1st-century Roman occupation of Judea – in modern-day Israel – Jewish religious practices were restricted, and teaching the Bible was forbidden. Despite the risks, Rabbi Akiva continued to teach. His defiance led to his arrest and torture.

According to Jewish tradition, as Rabbi Akiva was tortured, he recited the Shema, affirming his faith in God even in the face of death. This martyrdom, too, has become a symbol of spiritual resilience and dedication.

The stories of Roi Klein and Rabbi Akiva are separated by thousands of years but united by a common thread: their last words, “Shema Yisrael.” This prayer, central to Jewish belief, declares the oneness of God and is recited daily by Jewish people worldwide. For Roi Klein and Rabbi Akiva, the Shema was more than just a prayer; it was a declaration of faith and identity, even in their final moments.

There’s one other interesting tie between the two men and what they stood for. One of Rabbi Akiva’s most famous teachings was based on a verse in Leviticus:

Rabbi Akiva used to say (metaphorically) about this verse that the rest of the Bible is just details, and of all the commandments one could follow, how one treats one’s fellow man is of the utmost importance. When you look at both of these heroic stories, Rabbi Akiva and Roi Klein, you see them declaring their love for God and fellow man. 

Roi Klein saved his fellow soldiers without hesitation in an act of love and devotion. His final words affirm that his faith—the Bible and all that he stood for—was the most true to his heart.

Rabbi Akiva died a martyr so his students wouldn’t have to. He studied the Bible and died with its words on his lips. He took a stand for his disciples and generations to come – he wanted to give them a world in which they could freely be who they were. 

Today’s “hero stories” remind us that true heroism is not only about physical bravery but also about the strength of spirit and conviction. In our somewhat cynical times, such pure idealism can seem jarring or incomprehensible, especially in contrast to the poisonous cultism of college campus protesters and their buddies in Hamas.  But in considering Roi Klein and Rabbi Akiva’s stories, we are forced to examine what we ourselves would be willing to give up everything for. Their legacies remind us to consider what truly matters and then find the courage to live our lives with integrity and faith in God. 

This article is part three in a seven week series on Heroic People in the Modern Day and Biblical Times.
Catch up on last week’s hero here

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Sara Lamm

Sara Lamm is a content editor for TheIsraelBible.com and Israel365 Publications. Originally from Virginia, she moved to Israel with her husband and children in 2021. Sara has a Masters Degree in Education from Bankstreet college and taught preschool for almost a decade before making Aliyah to Israel. Sara is passionate about connecting Bible study with “real life’ and is currently working on a children’s Bible series.

Sara Lamm

Sara Lamm is a content editor for TheIsraelBible.com and Israel365 Publications. Originally from Virginia, she moved to Israel with her husband and children in 2021. Sara has a Masters Degree in Education from Bankstreet college and taught preschool for almost a decade before making Aliyah to Israel. Sara is passionate about connecting Bible study with “real life’ and is currently working on a children’s Bible series.

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