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THE ART OF CONNECTING TO R’ AKIVA
A popular parasha sheet in Israel wrote something that got me thinking.
People go to R’ Shimon Bar Yochai to pray for miracles, borrowing an unrelated terminology from the Talmud, כדאי הוא ר”ש לסמוך עליו בשעת הדחק. (Gittin 19a) It is true. People have seen miracles after praying at the Tomb of R’ Shimon in Meron, and the Talmud tells us that R’ Shimon was accustomed to performing miracles, seeing miracles, and having miracles in his life. (Meilah 17) But people don’t go nearly as much to visit the grave of R’ Akiva in Tiberias, as they go to visit the grave of R’ Shimon in Meron, even though R’ Akiva was R’ Shimon’s teacher.
After R’ Akiva lost his 24,000 students, he did not give up. He restarted with just five: those five are the source of all the Oral Torah that we have today. R’ Meir is all the Stam Tana of all the Mishna; Rabbi Nechamia is the Stam Tanah of Tosefta; Rabbi Yehuda is the Stam Tana of Sifra; R’ Shimon is the Stam Tana of Sifri, and all of what they taught was what they learned from R’ Akiva!
When R’ Shimon told his students to learn from him, he said, “My sons, learn my Torah teachings, because my Torah lessons are a minute fraction of the finest of the finest of the teachings of R’ Akiva.” (Gittin 67a) R’ Shimon authored not only the Zohar and Sifri, but also the Mechilta. All of this was just a “minute fraction” of the Torah he learned from R’ Akiva.
If that is the case, why don’t we visit R’ Akiva’s grave, at least as much as we visit R’ Shimon? Similarly, the author asked, why don’t we visit Yaakov Avinu’s grave in Ma’arat Hamachpela, as much as we visit Rachel Imenu?
The answer the author gave is interesting, but incorrect. The author explained that people go to R’ Shimon, to Rachel Imenu, because they want solutions to their life-problems. They don’t know how to, and don’t want to live with their life’s problems. People want miracles and are not prepared to make the effort to build themselves through the difficulties life throws at them. Rabbi Akiva was known for going through life difficulties and accepting them with love, and positivity, not for making miracles to solve problems. Yaakov Avinu lived a life of difficulty, and he tried to accept and deal with the circumstances. Rachel, on the other hand, demanded miracles from her husband, to be a mother of a child. So, when people have problems, they don’t go to R’ Akiva and to Yaakov Avinu, because they were known for acceptance, and people don’t want to accept. People want miracles and solutions, so they would rather go to R’ Shimon and Rachel, hoping the problems will somehow either disappear or end themselves.
I brought this idea to my Rabbi, and he said, Has Veshalom! The reason why we go to R’ Shimon is because R’ Akiva was on such a high level that we can gain from his Torah only through his students; so people visit the graves of R’ Shimon and R’ Meir ba’al Haness, both R’ Akiva’s students. But R’ Akiva, himself, is on too high a level for us to be able to connect to his Torah, alone and directly. Also, we know that the greatest Rabbis – Rabeinu Ovadia Bartenura, the Bet Yosef, the Ramak, the Arizal, the Ohr Hachaim and the Shlah – made a “big deal” of their visit to R’ Shimon, even though those Rabbis, themselves, were not people who looked for easy lives. But the celebration of Lag Ba’omer is the celebration not of R’ Shimon, alone, but of the Torah of R’ Akiva. That is why we sing the song of אמר רבי עקיבא אשריכם ישראל , on Lag Ba’omer.
The reason why we go to Rachel Imenu is because, as Yaakov told his son Yosef, G-d wanted her grave to be positioned on the side of the road, at the entrance to Jerusalem, for people to pray there. (Bereshit 48;7) She cries for her children; she is the mother of the Jewish people, as she cries a special tear for each Jew.רָחֵ֖ל מְבַכָּ֣ה עַל־בָּנֶי֑הָ מֵאֲנָ֛ה לְהִנָּחֵ֥ם עַל־ בָּנֶ֖יהָ כִּ֥י אֵינֶֽנּוּ She refuses to be consoled for her sons, for he is not present (in Israel). This phrase begins with plural, and ends in singular. Rachel’s merit, because of which that G-d never turns down her requests, is her having overcome jealousy and her having given in to her sister, which ultimately brought about the birth of all 12 tribes. Yosef, her son, was the first to pray at her grave, as he had been sold as a slave and was on his way down to Egypt. (Sefer Hayashar) The Vilna Gaon (Tikunei Zohar 6 22a) writes that when there are no Tzaddikim in a particular generation, the Shechina, G-d’s Presence, is found by the graves of the Tzaddikim, especially by the tomb of Rachel Imenu; that there is the main place where the Shechina resides. The Leshem explains that for this reason, David Hamelech was anointed in Beit Lechem, for the Shechina is there.
Although we can’t connect to R’ Akiva’s Oral Torah without the conduit of his students, we can all learn from R’ Akiva’s life and struggles, and how he dealt with them. Every story of R’ Akiva is a story of ultimate positivity and optimism. Optimism is broken down to three Ps. Not taking things Personally, recognizing that problems are not Permanent, and problems are neither Pervasive nor worse than they actually are. These messages are interwoven in every story about Rabbi Akiva.
We know the stories. When he passed some water dripping slowly, but constantly, on a rock and saw that the water had made a hole in it, R’ Akiva realized that if water, with its continuous dripping, can make a hole in the stone, for sure, constant “drops” of Torah learning can make an impact on my mind. (Avot DR Natan 6 2) Being dumb, ignorant, is not a permanent problem. It is temporary, as long as you are consistent in learning Torah. When he was lying in the barn on the hay with his new wife, Rachel, pulling out the straw from her hair, he said, “If and when I have the money for it, I will get you the head ornament, Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, that you deserve. (Nedarim 51 a) Poverty is temporary, and it is just a mindset. R’ Akiva said that a rich person is not one who has great wealth in the bank, but one who is rich in his essence. Rabbi Akiva said, Who is a rich man? A man who has a wife with good character. )Shabbat 25b) A person is rich, not if he has what he needs, but if he feels so replete with goodness that he can give to others. When Eliyahu Hanavi appeared as a poor man and knocked on the barn door, he said, “My wife just gave birth and we are so poor, we don’t have even hay to cover her. Do you have any hay you can give us?” R’ Akiva and Rachel immediately gave him some hay, and when the man left, R’ Akiva tells Rachel, “You see, there are people who don’t even have any hay! At least we have hay!”
Ever wonder why Eliyahu Hanavi did not just come and give them a two-million-dollar diamond, or at least warm blankets, and some comfy pillows? The answer is that you do more for a person, when you give him an opportunity to give, then when you give the person the opportunity to take.
The story of R’ Akiva with the rooster, lamp, and donkey is a story of ultimate positive thinking, the certainty that when G-d takes things from you, it is only because He has your good in mind. (Berachot 60b) The story of R’ Akiva, when he was with other Rabbis who were crying when they saw the site of the Destruction of the Temple, and foxes were walking over the place of the Holy of Holies, while R’ Akiva was laughing, saying that if the prophecy of destruction came true, for sure the prophecy of the Final Redemption will come true as well, is a perfect example of acknowledging that the present is not permanent. (Makkot 24b)
The story of how his wife encouraged him, saying that, although in the beginning, people will laugh at you that at your age, you’re coming to learn the basics with little children in school; but eventually, they will get used to it, and eventually you will surely see your learning blossom and the fruits of your labor. She walked with him in the market place, with a plant growing on the back of a donkey, hinting that there can be growth anywhere, and in the most bizarre and unexpected places. The people laughed at them on the first day, the second day; but on the third day, they got used to it. Midrash Hagadol Shemot 24; 13)
When Rabbi Akiva, Ben Azai, Acher and Ben Zoma went to Pardes, only Rabbi Akiva came out of there sane, because he believed that if the wicked are repaid with good, so much more so, will the tzaddikkim receive good in the next world. (Hagigah 14b, Makkot 24a)
R’ Akiva was even able to make his horrible death into a positive story. He did not just die. He said he had waited his whole life for the day when he would have the opportunity to die for G-d, to love G-d with all his soul, בכל נפשך, and, now, at the hour of his death, his wish was being answered.
Rabbi Akiva, himself, was in jail and suffered from the first day of Elul until he died on Yom Kippur. This is why we say, during the Kol Nidrei, the passuk in Tehillim, א֖וֹר זָרֻ֣עַ לַצַּדִּ֑יק וּֽלְיִשְׁרֵי־לֵ֥ב שִׂמְחָֽה , because the last letters of this passuk, spell the letters of his name, R’ Akiva. The passuk that has his name hidden in it is also the passuk of positivity. Light is sown for the Tzaddik, and for those that are straightforward, they have happiness (in the present).
And this is the reason why it is a basic part of the day of Yom Kippur and the days leading up to Yom Kippur that we pray R’ Akiva’s prayer, Avinu Malkeinu. He was murdered by the Romans, who peeled the flesh off his body with metal forks. How could R’ Akiva look forward to such cruelty?
R’ Akiva was the tenth of the great Rabbis who were killed by the Romans. His death was the harshest death of all the ten Rabbis who were killed by the Romans, as his Rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenas, foretold. The reason: because there was some more Torah R’ Akiva could have learned from R’ Eliezer, that he did not. )Sanhedrin 68a) This teaches us that a person is held responsible for what he could do. In spiritual matters, you are held accountable for what you could do.
The reason why R’ Akiva died such a death, at the age 119, was because the Tribes kidnapped Yosef and sold him, something that the Torah punishes by death. We, their descendants, who still did not learn to love our brother and her his plea in times of need, still pray for atonement for this at the height of our High Holiday prayers, every Yom Kippur, כי אתה סלחן לישראל ומחלן לשבטי ישורון. There were only 9 brothers who were part of the sale, but the tribes got G-d to be the tenth and join in the decision to sell Yosef. So, G-d, Himself, who was the number 10, needed a Kaparah as well, and R’ Akiva, who was the tenth, had his death as the Kaparah for G-d.
That is the way he lived his life, with the purest intentions of serving G-d, ready at every moment to give up everything for G-d. This purity is R’ Akiva’s song that we sing on Lag Ba’omer , a song of how we serve G-d in purity. אמר רבי עקיבא אשריכם ישראל לפני מי אתם מטהרין ומי ומטהר אתכם, אביכם שבשמים . This is why R’ Akiva was so particular in keeping the mitzvah of Netilat Yadaim, even risking his life for it, when he was in jail. (Eruvin 21b)
This purity, to do everything we do exclusively for G-d’s sake, is what we need to work on during the Sefirat Ha’omer, to get us ready for Shavuot, receiving the Torah, which is the Chupah between G-d and the Jewish People. (Taanit 4:8) וטהר לבנו לעבדך באמת The Sefirat Ha’omer is the ultimate purification process of 7 times 7, and it starts from Pesach, which is like the Kiddushin. Ridding ourselves of Chametz is the start of the purification process, as it is putting a stop to the Yetzer Hara. This explains why the Torah refers to first day of Pesach, ממחרת השבת , because the word Shabbat means to cease, stop. We are to begin the 49-day purification after we purify ourselves, after putting an end to the Yetzer Hara. And the way to do this is to think, every day, how we are ready to give everything we have, for G-d. Just like R’ Akiva lived his life.