The period of counting the Omer is also a time of national mourning. The Talmud (Yevamot 62b) recounts that Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest scholars of the Mishna, lost 24,000 students to plague during this time of year. The world was “desolate” until he raised five new students – who were able to restore the Torah to its full glory in that dark period.
Rabbi Akiva’s life is a fascinating tale of inspiration, of a man of humble origins who overcame it all to achieve greatness. I would like to outline some of the highlights of his life story – and demonstrate why I feel he serves as a personal role model to us all.
1. He was of Humble Origins
Rabbi Akiva began his life as a shepherd. He was entirely unlearned until his middle years. He likewise had no Jewish lineage to speak of (Talmud Brachot 27b). He descended from converts. And as he rose to greatness in his later years, he never forgot who he was or where he came from. His favorite principle was “Love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Rich or poor, simple or scholarly, tall or short, strong or weak: We are all God’s children. God and His Torah are not the monopoly of the wise or the well-pedigreed. We are all precious to God.
2. He Saw Inspiration and Acted on it
The Midrash (Avot d’Rav Natan 6:2) records the turning point of Rabbi Akiva’s life. One day, at the age of 40, Akiva passed a well. He saw a rock with a hole carved into it. He inquired who shaped the rock, and was told it was caused by the slow but constant dripping of water on top of it.
Akiva then reasoned: If a substance soft as water can penetrate a rock with slow, persistent motion, so too the Torah, which is hard as iron, can slowly but surely penetrate my heart. And this was Akiva’s turning point. He promptly set off to study Torah – for an uninterrupted 24 years.
So many times in our lives are we moved by inspiring words or events. We know they are speaking to us, that God has a message for us. Yet the inspiration fades before we do anything about it – and life moves on. Not R. 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 did not exactly hire a private tutor or 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. And his past humility showed. He wasn’t fazed by the awkwardness; he didn’t care for his own dignity. He set right down to work.
4. He was No Super-Genius
It is not as if Rabbi Akiva really had an IQ of 180 all along but was just withering on the vine during his years as a shepherd. He had to work – and work hard – to become who he was.
The Talmud (Yevamot 16a) records a meeting R. Akiva had with a monumental scholar, to discuss a debate they had about a touchy subject in Jewish law. The other scholar was the raving genius type. No one could keep up with him in an argument – not even R. Akiva, by then the acknowledged leader of his generation.
The other scholar, after R. Akiva failed to convince him, had nothing but snide remarks for the supposed leading scholar of the generation. But as the Talmud continues, it didn’t faze Akiva in the slightest. He was still the shepherd-turned-scholar. He had no airs about him whatsoever.
5. He Asked All the Tough Questions
Rabbi Akiva, in spite of his late start, had a distinct advantage over his colleagues. Unlike they who began their study as small children, he came to it as an adult. And as a result, he approached the Torah with mature eyes. Nothing was taken for granted or viewed as, “Well, that’s just the way things are.” R. Akiva probed every aspect of Judaism – and discovered truths where others failed even to look.
R. Akiva discovered truths where others failed even to look.
We thus find Rabbi Akiva posing some of the most profound questions of life. In Pirkei Avot (3:19) he grapples with the contradiction between man’s free will and God’s knowledge of the future. If God already knows what I will do tomorrow, do I really have the free will to decide? He likewise discusses (3:20) how God’s governs and judges the world. The Midrash (Avot d’Rav Natan 6:2) describes R. Akiva as a persistent student, leaving no issue unexplored and unexplained. His colleague characterized him with the comment – “Matters hidden from people, R. Akiva has brought to light.”
6. It was All Because of His Wife – and He Knew it
So much of R. Akiva’s greatness was on account of his devoted wife Rachel. 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 the humble shepherd, whom she saw as modest and refined. She proposed to him – on condition that he agree to study Torah. He agreed and they married secretly. Kalba promptly disowned his daughter and for years the young couple lived in abject poverty (Talmud Ketuvot 62b).
If not for Rachel, Akiva would have no doubt remained an anonymous shepherd with little future. But she believed in him. Rachel left a life of fabulous wealth to make home for Akiva – because she knew he could become great – and she had the faith and the patience to see it happen. And when he was ready, she encouraged him to leave home to study – which he did for an uninterrupted 12 years.
But that was only half of it. The Talmud (Ketuvot 62-3) records that on his return, already an accomplished scholar, R. Akiva was about to enter his home. Just then he overhears a conversation. An elderly man challenges Rachel: “How long will you live as a widow with your husband alive?” She responds, “If [my husband] would listen to me, he would remain for another 12 years in yeshiva!” On that providential note, R. Akiva returns for another 12 years of study.
At last, after 24 years, R. Akiva returns to his hometown, now the leading scholar of the generation, escorted by an entourage of 24,000 students. His wife, still dressed in her simple house clothes, goes out to greet him. She falls before his feet. It creates a scene – an elderly woman thrusting herself before great rabbi surrounded by scores of devoted students. They move to push her away. But R. Akiva stops them, uttering a line which has since become famous: “Leave her. What is mine and what is yours is hers.”
7. He Never Forgot His Origins
R. 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. His opinion was sought and regarded on all matters Jewish. 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 to be unlearned.
And his love for humanity showed. His favorite verse was Leviticus 19:18: “Love your fellow as yourself” (Sifra 4:12). In Pirkei Avot (3:18), he states, “Beloved is man for he was created in the image [of God],” as well as, “Beloved are the Children of Israel for they are called children of the Lord.” We are all precious to God. There is no favoritism in Heaven.
R. Akiva in fact well remembered his past hatred for Torah scholars (Talmud Pesachim 49b). He knew what it was like to be coarse and ignorant. And he remembered the resentment – and the hatred – felt by the underprivileged classes. He had love and patience for all – because he was one of them himself, and he realized how difficult it is to outgrow one’s past mindset.
8. He Lost All – and Kept Going
After achieving fame, R. Akiva became teacher and spiritual mentor to an astounding 24,000 students. As the Talmud (Yevamot 62b) recounts, every one of them died in an exceedingly brief period of time – during the several week period between Passover and Shavuot – due to epidemic. And as the Talmud puts it, the world was desolate. The human tragedy was devastating, the loss to the Torah world unimaginable.
But apart from all of that, R. Akiva personally witnessed his entire lifeworks go down the drain. Years of training the greatest minds of the next generation were lost to R. Akiva, with nothing remaining to show for himself.
If there were anyone in this world who could be forgiven for spending his remaining years wasting away feeling sorry for himself, it was R. Akiva. Could there have been a clearer sign from heaven that God was not interested in R. Akiva’s works, that his precious legacy was just not meant to be? How could a human being not become paralyzed from misery and indecision at that point?
But R. Akiva picked himself up and started again. As the Talmud continues, he found 5 new students – five to replaced 24,000. Rather than attempting to amass students without number, he focused on 5 precious souls, who would between them restore the Torah to its past glory.
He didn't let his inability to explain stand in the way of achievement.
No doubt R. Akiva never recovered from the pain of the loss. As we saw, his way was to ponder the most difficult questions of life. Yet he didn’t let his inability to explain stand in the way of his life’s mission. We all have questions in life we cannot answer. Even with his great intellect – or perhaps because of it – R. Akiva was no exception. But questions and doubts did not stop him. The rabbi’s intellect was far from assuaged, but he kept on going – and ultimately persevered.
9. He Always Saw the Positive
Looking back at his difficult life, Rabbi Akiva saw God’s goodness in all that transpired – not only in his personal life but in all the events of the world. He became famous for the saying, “Whatever God does is for the good.”
The Talmud (Brachot 60b) recounts how R. Akiva was once traveling. He had with him a lantern, a rooster, and a donkey. He came to a village seeking lodging. No one took him in. Undaunted, his trademark reaction went through his mind: “Whatever God does is for the good.” 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. R. Akiva took it all in stride.
He awoke the next morning to find that during the night soldiers had sacked the village which refused him lodging. Not only would the rabbi have been captured with the other residents had he been there, but had his light or animals betrayed his camp he would have equally been doomed.
His colleagues cried at the pathetic sight but R. Akiva laughed.
The Talmud (Makkos 24b) relates that once R. Akiva and a number of colleagues passed by the former location of the Temple in Jerusalem (they lived shortly after its destruction). They saw a fox run out of the place of the Holy of Holies. The colleagues began crying at the pathetic sight. R. Akiva, however, laughed. To his surprised colleagues he explained: "We have both the prophecy of Uriah and of Zechariah. Uriah foretold, ‘Zion shall be plowed like a field’ (Micha 3:12). Zechariah foretold, ‘Again shall old men and old women sit in the streets of Jerusalem... and the streets of the city shall be filled with boys and girls playing’ (Zechariah 8:4-5). Until the prophecy of Uriah was fulfilled (fully and literally) I was fearful lest the prophecy of Zechariah not be fulfilled. Now that the prophecy of Uriah was fulfilled, it is clear that Zechariah's prophecy will be fulfilled – to the final detail."
R. Akiva lived through it all, yet he never lost hope. The very sights that brought others to tears of despair filled him with undying hope. All that occurs in this world, both the good and the bad, emanate from an infinitely-good Creator. But life isn’t always for us to understand. We must at times just be patient and wait.
10. He Died a Hero’s Death
We might hope that after living so troubled yet heroic a life, R. Akiva and Rachel would at last settle down to live happily ever after. But that was denied them as well.
The Talmud (Brachot 61b) describes Rabbi Akiva’s bitter end. He was incarcerated and tried by the Romans for his “crime” of publicly teaching Torah. He was found guilty as charged. They tortured him to death, flaying off his skin with sharpened iron combs.
R. Akiva spent his final moments on earth reciting the Shema, accepting upon himself the yoke of Heaven. His students asked him: “Our teacher, this far?!” He answered: The Shema teaches us to love God with all our souls (Deuteronomy 6:5), which I understood to mean “even if they are taking your soul.” My entire life I agonized over this verse: Would I really love God even if my soul were being taken? I at last have the opportunity to demonstrate this. How could I not do so now? And as the rabbi recited “the Lord is one” his soul left him.
R. Akiva is counted as one of the “ten martyrs” slain by the Romans – the ten leading Torah giants killed during and shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple. Most of the other scholars, in spite of their greatness, you might not have even heard of if you are not a Talmudic scholar yourself. But not R. Akiva. He was one of us: His story is our story, his life is our life. He began his days simply and humbly as so many of us, yet he grew to become whom we all know we too could be. May his memory be for a blessing.