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?
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.
But then his magnificent life turned around. The 24,000 disciples of Rabbi Akiva died. 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 world was desolate.
Rabbi Akiva decided that he should train more students. So he went to the south of Eretz Israel and began training five new students. These students were; Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Yose and Rabbi Nechemia. He then sent them to Northern Israel, to receive Semichah from Rebbe Yehudah Ben Bava.
Hadrian 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.
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 give them 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 over 100 years old. 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 to the South of Israel to begin again. What good will it do? Five 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 yitein. G-d gives his people strength. Our uncle, Rabbi Aharon Paperman, who was an American officer during the liberation of the Concentration Camps from Nazi Germany told me a story that will stay with me. In 1945 he entered into a camp to find himself surrounded by death. A man so weak that he could hardly talk looked up at him with eyes full of gratitude. “Zei Moichel” he said, “and please 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.