By Rabbi Yaacov Haber
Rabbi Akiva was forty years old and decided he wanted to study Torah. Thus far his life revolved around caring for the physical needs of the world. Like our forefathers, like Moses like so many great men he was a shepherd. But now he decided that he wants to make an intellectual contribution to the Jewish people. But the reality was nagging. Where does a forty-year old man start? He had never been trained in the utilization of his mind. How would he absorb that which scholars learn as children and is ingrained deeply in their hearts? And then one day while walking through the field he witnessed a miracle. Not a supernatural event as did Moses when he was shepherding, but rather a very ordinary miracle. He came upon a rock. He examined the rock and its strength overwhelmed him. He studied the rock and noticed a cavity. “What could be strong enough to bore a hole in this rock?” he asked. As he stared at the rock a drop of water fell upon the hole from a mountain. He understood that drop by drop the water, soft and refreshing to the touch pierced a hole through the impenetrable stone. Rabbi Akiva then reasoned; if soft water can penetrate hard rock, certainly Torah which is fire can penetrate my mind.
What was the lesson of the rock? If Rabbi Akiva was to derive that Torah should be studied a drop at a time that should frustrate him all the more. How could he learn little by little when half his life had already passed? A more appropriate lesson would have been to witness a waterfall crush a rock from which he would learn that an enormous quantity of Torah even at a late stage would crush the barriers of his mind.
Perhaps the lesson from this was a different one. Our obligation is a drop, even where it seems that the drop is for naught. Let the drop fall and somehow a breakthrough will take place.
Rabbi Akiva went to study Torah, he began to excel and he began to teach. Twenty-four years passed since that day at the rock and Rabbi Akiva became the most sought after teacher in Israel. He attracted over twenty thousand students. All from one droplet.
Many reasons are given for the celebration of Lag B’Omer, the thirty-third day of the counting of the Omer. Today I want to discuss perhaps the least known reason.
The 24,000 disciples of Rabbi Akiva died during the period of counting the Omer. Rabbi Akivas’ entire wealth, all that he had given his life for had perished. The Talmud tells us that the closest relationship in the world is that of a Rebbe and a Talmid. Imagine the grief, the despair. Who could survive the witnessing of such a tragedy? They all died in a very short time between Pesach and Shavuos. The plague lasted thirty-three days and on the thirty third day they stopped dying. The disciples who died included all those to whom he had given “Semicha”.
I should explain here that “Semicha” (ordination) is that which preserves the line of Rabbinical authority. It was first given by G-d to Moses, the first Rabbi, and then by Moses to Joshua, and so on, down the ages. It was necessary for such things as conversion, and the declaration of the new month.
Now that all the disciples of Rabbi Akiva with Semicha had died, Rabbi Akiva realized that the institution of Semicha was in danger of dying out. The Roman rulers, realizing the importance of Semicha for the continuity of Jewish tradition, had decreed that anyone who gave or received Semicha was liable to the death penalty, and any city in which it occurred would be destroyed. In spite of this, Rabbi Akiva looked over his remaining disciples, and decided that there was only one who could be considered a candidate for ordination, Yehuda ben Bava. Rabbi Akiva gave him Semicha on Lag B’Omer. (It is for this reason that many have a custom to give their students Semicha on Lag B’Omer.) So that is one of the things we celebrate on that day.
On that very day Rabbi Akiva decided that he should train more students for Semicha. So he went with five of his disciples to the south of Eretz Israel and began training them for Semicha. These students were; Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Yose and Rabbi Nechemia. However, before he could give them Semicha, he was captured and eventually martyred by the Roman authorities.
Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava went with these five students to a valley between two mountains, and away from the cities, so no city would be destroyed to continue training them for Semicha. The Romans discovered what was happening, and troops came into the valley. When Rabbi Yehuda realized that he was about to be captured, he quickly gave the five students Semicha, and told them to flee. “But Rebbe,” they said, “what about you?” “I am like a stone which cannot be turned,” he responded, and stayed where he was, so as to occupy the Romans and give the others a chance to escape. The Romans captured him and threw so many spears into him that his body resembled a sieve (Sanhedrin 14). The others succeeded in escaping. Thus Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava accomplished his mission.
Rabbi Akiva at this time was 92 years old. (Seder Hadoros) He just sustained the worst blow a person can endure. Great credit would have been due Rabbi Akiva if he would have just not lost his faith. We would recommend trauma therapy. At the very least retirement. But behold Rabbi Akiva doesn’t take the day off. He runs on that day to give Semicha to Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava. What good will it do? One in the face of 24,000 lost. Where did he get the strength? The answer is he remembered the miracle of the stone. One drop more and Klal Yisroel will continue.
Today we learn Torah from the Talmudic writings handed down to us. Mishna, Sifro, Sifri, Tosefta and Seder Olam. The Talmud ( Sanhedrin 86) tells us that unless named otherwise an unnamed Mishna is Rabbi Meir, Sifro is Rabbi Yehuda, Sifri is Rabbi Shimon, Tosefta is Rabbi Nechemia and Seder Olam is Rabbi Yose. Thus it becomes clear that on Lag B’Omer because of the heroic perseverance of one man, we are here to tell the story. The true celebration of Lag B’Omer is the celebration of the ability of man to find new strength to continue before even stepping out from the ashes.
A similar phenomenon happened with many of the Torah giants who escaped from Hitler and came to America and Israel in the thirties and forties. They had just experienced tragedies afflicting their families and friends, their teachers and pupils. Many people in such a situation would have taken time off to recover, taken psychotherapy, and so on. But these people, realizing the importance to Klal Israel of founding or transplanting yeshivas in America or Israel, ignored their personal grief, and plunged into this work.
Hashem oz lamo yiten. G-d gives his people strength. An American officer told me a story that stayed with me. In 1945 he was involved in liberating the horrible concentration camps of Nazi Europe. He went into a camp to find himself surrounded by death and a man looked up to him with gratitude. “Zei Moichel” he said “and find me a Gemoro Moed Katan. Next week I have Yahrtzeit for my father and I promised him that each year on his Yahrtzeit I would make a siyum on Moed Katan.”
This is why we exist as a people.