Even though the popular hero of the minor festival of Lag Ba'omer, which will occur next Monday night and Tuesday, is Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, I have always felt the central and most pivotal figure of that very turbulent period of Jewish history is Rabbi Akiva.
Rabbi Akiva was the teacher and mentor of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and his presence dominated his generation. Rabbi Akiva is one of the most famous and beloved figures in Jewish history. The Talmud records that upon meeting Rabbi Akiva for the first time, a great scholar exclaimed: "Is that you, Akiva ben Yosef, whose name and reputation are known from one end of the world to the other?"
Rabbi Akiva's name and reputation have not only journeyed from one end of the world to the other, they have journeyed for almost 1,900 years in the hearts and souls of the Jewish people. Rabbi 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. Rabbi 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 toward the scholars of Israel most objectionable and withdrew his original support of him and his cause. Rabbi Akiva then rallied his students around 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 the true savior of Israel.
Rabbi Akiva was the ultimate outsider in Jewish life; he came to his greatness not because of family lineage or privileged scholarship. He was descended from converts to Judaism and for the first 40 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 are entirely due to her credit!"
At different stages of his career, Rabbi Akiva taught Torah to tens of thousands of students. Tragically, the Talmud relates to us, that 24,000 of his students died during the period of sefirat haomer - the period of time between Pessah 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 Ba'omer they stopped dying. This tragic event is therefore the source of the mourning period in Jewish life that is observed during this period of time as well as the reason Lag Ba'omer is treated as a minor holiday. Rabbi 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. Rabbi Akiva showed the way to Jewish survival for all times.
Rabbi Akiva's students, especially Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi 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 determined 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 Rabbi Akiva thus 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 Ba'omer, serve to remind us of Rabbi Akiva, his life and accomplishments. Rabbi Akiva, who began as the ultimate outsider of Jewish life, has become the ultimate hero and teacher of all Jewish generations.
The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator (rabbiwein.com).