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LAG B’OMER 5774 - Rabbi Akiva is My Hero

LAG B’OMER 5774

Rabbi Akiva is My Hero

The period between Passover and Shavuot is designated by the Torah for the “Counting of the Omer.” In ancient times, each day was counted by setting aside one sheaf of barely. It was a joyous time eagerly awaiting the festival of Shavuot which celebrates the giving of the Torah. However, somewhere around the beginning of the 2nd century, it became a time of national mourning because, as the Talmud (Yevamot 62b) recounts, 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest scholars of all time, died in a plague because they did not show proper respect to one another—a wonderful lesson on the importance of treating our fellow human being with dignity and respect. After the plague the world was “desolate,” the Talmud tells us, until Akiva raised 5 new students who were able to restore the Torah to its full glory.

Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld has written a wonderful article about Rabbi Akiva titled: “Rabbi Akiva is My Hero: 10 life lessons from an accessible giant” (www.aish.com). I thought I’d share it with you today since tomorrow is Lag B’Omer, the day that plague ended. By the way, I think it’s remarkable that the Jewish people have observed a mourning period for 2 thousand years—not because of an exile or the loss of their Temple, but because of the loss of scholarship! That’s how precious learning and education is for the Jews.

Rabbi Akiva’s life is a fascinating tale of inspiration, of how a man of the most humble origins overcame it all to achieve greatness—a role model for us all. And now the 10 lessons:

1. Rabbi Akiva began his life as a shepherd. He was illiterate until his middle years. He had no Jewish lineage to speak of (Brachot 27b) because he descended from converts. However, he never forgot who he was or where he came from. His favorite principle from the Torah (Lev. 19:18) was: V’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha, “Love your fellow as yourself.” Rich or poor, simple or scholarly, strong or weak: We are all Gd’s children, he taught, all precious to Gd.

2. He saw inspiration and acted on it. The Midrash (Avot d’Rav Natan 6:2) records the turning point of Akiva’s life was when, at the age of 40, he passed a well and saw a rock with a hole carved through it. He asked who made that whole and was told it was caused by the slow but constant dripping of water on top of it. Akiva reasoned: “If water, which is soft, can penetrate a rock with just its slow, persistent motion, so too the Torah, which is hard as iron, can slowly but surely penetrate my heart.” This was Akiva’s turning point. He promptly set off to study Torah—for 24 years.

My friends, so many times in our lives we are moved by inspiring words or by something that happens to us. We know these words or events are speaking to us—that Gd has a message for us. Yet too often the inspiration fades before we do anything about it. Life moves on and nothing changes. Not Akiva. He saw his moment and he changed his life right then and there.

3. He patiently started from the bottom. When Akiva went to study, he couldn’t afford a tutor or even to join an adult study program. Nor did he sign up for an anonymous on-line course. The Midrash describes how he, together with his young son, went to cheder to learn the alef-bet together with the youngest children. He wasn’t fazed by the awkwardness; he didn’t care about his own dignity. He just wanted to learn.

4. He was no super genius. It’s not as if Akiva had an IQ of 180 but was just withering on the vine during his years as a shepherd. He had to work hard to acquire his learning and to become who he was.

5. He asked tough questions. Since Akiva came to Torah as an adult, he approached it with mature eyes. Nothing was taken for granted or viewed as, “Well, that’s just the way things are.” And so he discovered truths where others failed even to look. In Pirke Avot (3:19), for example, he grapples with the contradiction between man’s free will and Gd’s knowledge of the future: “Everything is foreseen, yet the freedom of choice is given.” In other words, even though Gd knows what we will do, we freely choose to do it.

6. His success was all because of his wife and he knew it. She “discovered” him. He served as shepherd for one of the wealthiest men of his time, Kalba Savua. Kalba’s daughter took a liking to this humble shepherd, whom she saw as modest and refined. She saw something in him that even he didn’t see, so she proposed to him on condition that he would agree to study Torah. Kalba promptly disowned his daughter and for years the young couple lived in abject poverty (Ketuvot 62b).

If not for Rachel, Akiva would have no doubt remained an anonymous shepherd with little future. Rachel left a life of fabulous wealth to make a home for Akiva because she knew he had so much to give this world. When Akiva returned home after 24 years as the leading scholar of his time—escorted by an entourage of 24,000 students—his wife, still dressed in her simple house clothes, went out to greet him. She fell before his feet, creating a scene. Akiva’s devoted students began to push her away. But Akiva cried out: “Leave her. What is mine and what is yours is all because of her.” In other words, it is my wife that deserves the credit for all that we have accomplished. It’s a thought that we men should seriously consider!

7. He never forgot his origins. Akiva “made it” in every sense of the word. By the end of his life he was the acknowledged spiritual leader of world Jewry. He became wealthy. He was revered and admired by all. Yet he never forgot where he came from. He was still one of the masses. He knew what it was like to be poor, to be unknown and illiterate. In Pirke Avot (3:18), he states: “Beloved is man for he was created in the image [of Gd].” We are all precious to Gd, he taught. There is no favoritism in Heaven. Akiva had love and patience for all because he was one of them.

8. He lost everything and kept going. As we said, Akiva amassed an astounding 24,000 students and every one of them died during this period between Passover and Shavuot from that plague. This tragedy was devastating, unimaginable. All the years of training the greatest minds of the next generation were now lost.

If there was anyone in this world who could have felt sorry for himself and given up it was Akiva. And yet, he picked himself up and started again. He found 5 new students—5 to replace 24,000—and one of them was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, author of the Zohar, the bible of Kabbalah. Akiva didn’t allow his inability to understand his loss to stand in the way of continuing his life’s mission.

My friends, at times, don’t we all have questions about our lives we cannot answer? Even with his great intellect Rabbi Akiva was no exception, but he moved forward and so can we.

9. He always saw the positive. Rabbi Akiva wore rose colored glasses. He saw Gd’s goodness in everything that happened. He was famous for the saying, Gam zu l’tova, “Whatever happens is good.”

The Talmud (Brachot 60b) tells the story of how Rabbi Akiva was once traveling. He had with him a lantern, a rooster, and a donkey. He came to a village seeking lodging. No one would take him in and so he set up camp in the wilderness nearby. During the night a wind blew out his lamp, a fox ate his rooster, and a lion slew his donkey. When he awoke, he took it all in stride saying, Gam zu l’tova, this must be for the best. Soon he discovered that during the night soldiers had sacked the village which refused him lodging. Not only would Akiva have been captured with the other residents had he been there, but had his light or animals betrayed his location he would have equally been doomed. Gam zu l’tova.

The Talmud (Makkos 24b) also relates that once Akiva and a number of colleagues passed by the ruins of the 2nd Temple and saw a fox run out of the place of the Holy of Holies. The shocked colleagues began to cry while Akiva laughed. He explained that since the fox coming out of the ruins fulfills the ancient prophecy of destruction, it’s now time to see the prophecies of rebuilding fulfilled. Akiva never lost hope. The very sights that brought others to tears of despair…he saw in them hope. And so he taught, all that occurs in this world, both the good and the bad, emanate from an infinitely good Creator. 

10. He died a hero’s death and is counted as one of the “10 martyrs” slain by the Romans. One would have hoped that after living such a troubled life, Akiva and Rachel would have settled down to live happily ever. The Talmud (Brachot 61b) describes how Rabbi Akiva was tried by the Romans for his “crime” of teaching Torah and tortured to death—flaying off his skin with sharpened iron combs as it burned.

Akiva spent his final moments on earth reciting the Shema, accepting upon himself the yoke of Heaven. The Jerusalem Talmud (Sota 5:5) tells us that he laughed as he did so. When the cruel Roman governor Turnus Rufus, who was watching this spectacle, asked him if he was mocking him, Akiva replied, “My whole life I have recited the verse, ‘You shall love Gd with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.’ I have loved Gd with all my heart; I have loved Him with all my might, but I was not certain till now if I could love Him with all my soul…and now ‘all my soul’ faces me as I’m dying and I see that I can, and so I recite the Shema and laugh with joy.”

In the face of his torturous death Rabbi Akiva taught his most powerful lesson as he challenges us with the question: How much are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of Gd and Jewish life?

It’s fitting to remember Rabbi Akiva today as we celebrate Lag B’Omer tomorrow because he was one of us: His story is our story, his life is our life. Akiva began his days simply and humbly like most of us, yet he grew to become one whom we all know we too could be if we worked hard enough at it. Y’hi zicrono baruch, “May his memory ever be for a blessing and an inspiration.”

Today we celebrate the 80th birthday of Dave Fink. In a lot of ways Dave is like Rabbi Akiva. He loves his fellow man and treats everyone—rich or poor, simple or scholarly—as if each is a child of Gd. He has worked hard and accomplished much. He was not afraid to start over and he now understands that his happiness is all because of his beautiful wife Carol who saw in him the special man that he is. He is willing and has sacrificed much for the sake of Gd and our shule Shaarei Shamayim. And of course, like Rabbi Akiva, he is one of us, a great guy, our hero today and a real mentch! Pirke Avot (5:25) teaches: ben shmonim ligvura, “the 80th year is for strength.” May Gd grant Dave the strength to enjoy many more years of happiness and health until 120. Amen!

                                      Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis

                                      5/17/14

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