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Even though the popular hero of the minor festival of Lag B’Omer, which will occur next Monday night and Tuesday, is Rabi Shimon ben Yochai, I have always felt that the central and most pivotal figure of that very turbulent period of Jewish history is Rabi Akiva. Rabi Akiva was the teacher and mentor of Rabi Shimon ben Yochai and his presence dominated his generation. Rabi Akiva is one of the most famous and beloved figures in Jewish history. The Talmud records that a great scholar upon meeting Rabi Akiva for the first time exclaimed: “Is that you, Akiva ben Yosef, whose name and reputation is known from one end of the world to the other?”



Rabi Akiva’s name and reputation has not only journeyed from one end of the world to the other, it has journeyed for almost nineteen hundred years in the hearts and souls of the Jewish people. Rabi Akiva suffered a martyr’s death at the hands of the Romans after the bitter failed conclusion of Bar Kochba’s rebellion against Roman rule in about 140 CE. Rabi Akiva was originally a staunch supporter of the rebellion and of Bar Kochba personally, even seeing in him messianic potential. But he found Bar Kochba’s later behavior and brutality towards the scholars of Israel most objectionable and withdrew his original support of him and his cause. Rabi Akiva then rallied his students round him to rebuild the Jewish people through the only trusted and time-proven method known to us – the study, knowledge and observance of Torah. In this respect he proved himself to be true savior of Israel.



Rabi Akiva was the ultimate outsider in Jewish life. In this I mean he came to his greatness not because of family lineage or privileged scholarship. He was descended from converts to Judaism and for the first forty years of his life was ignorant of Torah, hateful of Torah scholars and served in the lowly profession of being a shepherd. In a dramatic story of love and devotion, his wife Rachel, who married him against the wishes of her family, convinced him to devote himself to Torah study. Decades later after he achieved his fame as the leading scholar of Israel, he stated to his students: “All that I am and all that you are regarding our Torah studies and erudition is entirely due to her credit!”



Rabi Akiva at different stages of his career taught Torah to tens of thousands of students. Tragically, the Talmud relates to us, that twenty-four thousand of his students died during the period of sefirat haomer – the period of time between Pesach and Shavuot. Though the Talmud does not tell us what the immediate cause of their deaths was, it does indicate that their lack of respect for one another was the prime spiritual factor that triggered this tragedy. On Lag B’Omer they stopped dying. This tragic event, the source of the mourning period in Jewish life observed during this time, is the reason why Lag B’Omer is treated as a minor holiday. Rabi Akiva’s great personal resilience in continuing to disseminate Torah after such a tragedy and after the national tragedy of Bar Kochba’s defeat and death speaks volumes about his character and greatness. In this he taught future generations of Jewish greats never to give up. And, throughout Jewish history the resilience of the Torah scholars and their students has saved Israel from destruction and possible extinction. Rabi Akiva showed the way to Jewish survival for all times.



Rabi Akiva’s students, especially Rabi Shimon ben Yochai, Rabi Meir, Rabi Yehuda ben Ilayi and others, continued the work of their master and teacher. These are the scholars who appear everywhere in the Mishna and continued the traditions and knowledge of the Oral Law under the most difficult circumstances of Roman rule and persecution. It was during this time that staunch Christian attempts to convert Jews also occurred. In the maelstrom of such times, the great men of Israel held the Jewish people safe and strong with their beliefs and inner convictions. The spirit and strength of Rabi Akiva lived on in the work of his immediate next generation. Through them he became the model and teacher for all later Jewish generations as well. The period of sefirat haomer together with its commemorative day of Lag B’Omer serve to remind us of Rabi Akiva, his life and accomplishments. Rabi Akiva, who began as the ultimate outsider of Jewish life, became the ultimate hero and teacher of all Jewish generations.



Shabat shalom.

Berel Wein

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