The midrash about Rabbi Akiba is so rich its hard to know quite where to begin.IN this section is one of the most famous midrashim - about the four who go to paradise, buthtat one requires so much exposition just to get to the beginning, I think I'll skip it for now. Maybe I'll come back to it later.
So let's look at one tiny midrash... our masters taught that Rabbi Akiba gave seven charges to his son:
What is the content of these seven things that he thought his son should know. Don't live and study in the business district of a city. Commentators say that this is so that noise won't disturb your study - this is possible since the rabbis were wont to study in the marketplace, but then why warn against living there? I think that actually he may have had something else in mind, which is not simply that studying in the business district will disturb his son's study, but rather that he's warning his son not to absorb the transactional nature of the marketplace too much. Don't make it a habit to be around places where everything is for sale, because you will come to view every action as a transaction.
I think that this is borne out by the remainder of his advice : don't enter your own - or anyone else's- house unexpectedly- that is, don't forget to be polite - announce yourself and don't barge in, not even to your own family. Be practical - don't neglect your health by not eating properly or skipping shoes, know that people go through periods of good fortune and that they can help you when they do, so don't make enemies of them, and not final in the list, but final here - work on shabbat rather than take charity - this last is quite astonishing - violate shabbat rather than take charity!
From the turn of the last century to about the middle of it, this was often the case with Jews in the US. Immigrants, often ran their stores on shabbat or were obliged to keep working lest they lose their jobs. It was, of course, the liberal movements who chose to look the other way and make allowance for this. Many people got into the habit (and unfortunately many still are in the habit) of doing business on shabbat, of working, shopping, using money. My own movement wrote tshuvot to deal with this and gave over the leniency. When I read this, I started considering exactly how that fit into our tradition- it's aggadic material, certainly, not halakhic, and but clearly Rabbi Akiva felt that circumstances sometimes required such action. And yet, giving permission as a movement, has not served the Jewish people well. The drift away from shabbat observance in the home and the shul, the lack of distancing oneself from the world from one day of the week (or at least the distancing oneself from the business world)has made of us a people who, I think, are vulnerable to Madoff's and ethical lapses, because in refusing to ever walk away from money, we come to believe that money is most important - even when we can afford to spend a day less not buying, not selling. Perhaps this is the real reason rabbi Akiba didn't want his son to live too near the marketplace - even if he was obliged to work to avoid charity, he shouldn't come to believe that all life is the marketplace, and that there is nothing else, but rather, he should spend shabbat knowing that when he walks away from the market at last, there is another world out there, one in which the human is not primary,a nd over which we do not have power or sway.