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Rabbi Akiva
by Rabbi Berel Wein

The current period of time between the holidays of Pesach and Shavuos are the times of the sefiras haoemer - the counting of the seven weeks of forty-nine days that are between these two major holidays on the Jewish calendar. As is well known this period of time is also a period of semi-mourning because of historical tragedies that occurred to the Jewish people during this particular period of the time of the year. The earliest tragic event of this period as recorded for us in the Talmud was the death of twenty-four thousand students of Rabbi Akiva during the Hadrianic era of the second century CE. Because of this, Rabbi Akiva has been forever linked to the sefira period of the calendar. Rabbi Akiva is one of the leading figures in the Mishna and Talmud and one of the heroic figures in all of Jewish history. One may even say that his life is a classic example of holy accomplishment under most adverse and negative circumstances. It is the very tragedy of the events of his life that lend him the grandeur and stature as being the heroic role model of all later generations of Jews.

Rabbi Akiva came from a family of converts. Even later in life when he was recognized as the greatest scholar of his generation, his lack of pedigree held him back from being appointed the nassi -- the leader of the Sanhedrin. Yet, he remains the prime example of the greatness that converts and those born of converts have brought to the Jewish people over the ages. For the first decades of his life, Rabbi Akiva was a completely unlettered and ignorant Jew. Not only that, but he freely admitted later in life that when he was such an ignorant Jew he possessed a deep and abiding hatred towards the Torah scholars of his time. His inspiration to study Torah came from his wife, Rachel, the daughter of Kalba Savua, the wealthiest Jew of his time. Rabbi Akiva was a shepherd -- as was Jacob, Moses and David -- in the employ of Kalba Savua. Rachel loved Rabbi Akiva and sent him away to study at the yeshiva of the great Rabbi Eliezer, while her father, angry over the "mismatch," disowned them both. Rabbi Akiva saw a stone that had been worn away by the drops of water that were constantly falling on it. He applied himself diligently to the study of Torah which is compared always to water and the rock of ignorance and hatred within him was washed away. When he returned to Rachel revered as the greatest scholar of his time with tens of thousands of students, Kalba Savua was quick to reinstate Rachel and Rabbi Akiva into his largesse and good graces. Rabbi Akiva thus became the inspiration not only for converts and their descendants but for those who come to Torah study even later in life.

Rabbi Akiva supported the abortive rebellion of Bar Kochba against Roman rule. Rabbi Akiva even saw in the early Bar Kochba messianic potential and opportunity. However, as the rebellion began to falter and Bar Kochba himself turned out to have clay feet, Rabbi Akiva ruefully admitted his error in supporting the revolt. The persecutions of the Romans against the Jews and against all observances and study of Torah were horrific. Rabbi Akiva himself would be arrested and tortured to death. Yet, Rabbi Akiva remained as the symbol of Jewish optimism throughout the ages of exile and despair. His faith in the better tomorrow for Jews and humanity, his rock-solid belief in the literal fulfillment of the words of the prophets regarding the redemption of Israel and his upbeat outlook on life in spite of all adversities never wavered. Other great scholars wept in despair when they witnessed jackals roaming through the ruins of the Temple and its Holy of Holies. Rabbi Akiva laughed at viewing the same scene, serene in his faith that just as the negative prophecies regarding the Jewish future were fulfilled literally, so too would the positive blessings of Israel recorded in the book of Zecharya occur in a most literal and perfect sense. The ability of all later generations of Jews to look beyond current troubles and tragedies and to see a great dawn of hope and light in their future was now predicated on Rabbi Akiva's example and teachings. Thus the hero of the converts and the unlettered became the hero of all of Israel through all of its ages and experiences. The sefira period reminds us of this great Jew and renews our own hopes for triumph of Torah and Israel.

Reprinted with permission from RabbiWein.com

 

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