LAG B’OMER 5779
On Chanukah I spoke about heroes—those we look up to who inspire us. I asked you, “When you were kids, who were your heroes?” I remember dressing up in my cowboy outfit pretending to be the Lone Ranger or Hopalong Cassidy. Sometimes I would tie a towel around my neck and I’d be Superman. It’s great for kids to have heroes to look up to—heroes that stand for the values of goodness and decency.
Today I’d like to speak about one of Jewish history’s great heroes—Rabbi Akiva who lived in the 2nd century and his connection to Lag B’Omer which we will celebrate on Thursday. Lag B’Omer was the day on which the plague that killed 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva came to an end. Could you imagine any teacher having 24,000 students? Why did they die? The Shulchan Aruch (493:1) tells us: Mipnei shelo nahagu kavod zeh l’zeh (Because they did not show proper respect, one for 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 (Yevamot 62b) tells us, until Akiva raised 5 new students who were able to begin to restore glory to the Torah.
Let me share with you the insights of Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld in his wonderful piece for www.aish.com, “Rabbi Akiva is My Hero: 10 life lessons from an accessible giant.” 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. Let me share with you some of the 10 lessons:
1. Rabbi Akiva was descended from converts and began his life as a lowly shepherd. He was illiterate until age 40. However, he never forgot who he was or where he came from. His favorite principle in 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.
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 upon 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.” He then began to study Torah at age 40—which in those days was already old!
My friends, 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.
3. Akiva patiently started from the bottom. When Akiva went to study, he couldn’t afford a tutor nor an on-line course. The Midrash describes how he went with his young son to cheder to learn the alef-bet together with the youngest children. He wasn’t embarrassed; he didn’t care about his own dignity. He just wanted to learn.
Let’s skip to # 6. He knew that his success was all because of his wife Rachel. He was 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 his 24,000 students—Rachel went out to greet him and fell before his feet, creating a scene. Akiva’s students pushed 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!
Now #8. He lost everything and kept going. As we said, Akiva amassed an astounding 24,000 students and every one of them died during that terrible plague. The tragedy was devastating. 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 with just 5 new students. Akiva didn’t allow his inability to comprehend 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 can’t comprehend? Akiva moved forward nevertheless…and so should we.
9. He always saw the positive. 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 for the good.” The Talmud (Brachot 60b) tells the story of how Akiva was once traveling. He had with him a lantern to study Torah at night by, a rooster to wake him, and a donkey to ride. 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. And so he taught Gam zu l’tova—everything that happens is for the best!
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 after. The Musaf service on Yom Kippur describes how 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 reciting the Shema. The Jerusalem Talmud (Sota 5:5) tells us that he laughed as he did so. The cruel Roman governor Turnus Rufus then asked 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 this Shabbos before Lag B’Omer because he was one of us. His story is our story, his life is our life. Akiva began his days simply and humbly—yet at 40 he decided to change. He inspires us that we can change and begin anew at any age.
Today we celebrate the 85th 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—with compassion and dignity, as if each is a child of Gd. He has worked hard and has 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.
Dave has sacrificed much for the sake of Gd and our shul. And of course, like Rabbi Akiva, he is one of us, a great guy, a real mentch and our hero today! Pirke Avot (5:25) teaches: ben shmonim ligvura, which I freely translate as, “the 80 years are for strength.” May Gd grant Dave and Carol the strength to enjoy many more years of happiness and health until 120. Amen!