By: Rabbi Shlomo Rosenfeld
A self-made man. The son of converts that spent the first 40 years of his life ignorant and angry. In a life changing moment, he sees the famous water dripping on the rock and makes the decision to make the journey to Torah and to Hashem. He begins learning the alphabet at age 40, and starts a life for himself, but gets disowned by his wealthy father-in-law, leaving himself and his wife to make it on their own. He leaves home to learn for 24 years and succeeds against all odds at making a yeshiva with 24,000 students. I am speaking of course about Rabbi Akiva, the man who Moshe saw deriving piles of halachas from the tiny crowns that Hashem was tying on top of the letters.
But then, after one Pesach it all starts to crumble, all his efforts and toil begin to unravel. His precious students that he put his blood sweat and tears into start dying at a dizzying rate. He needs to attend funeral after funeral and give hesped after hesped. And soon, within a few short weeks they’re all gone, all dead. The normal human reaction is utter despair and devastation. He was their teacher, it was his responsibility to teach them to honor each other properly. Regular people shut down after such an event. What does Rabbi Akiva do? He gets up, brushes off and starts over again with 5 students. Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Yosi. Nearly all the mishnayos and midrashim that we have are from these 5. Rabbi Akiva laid the groundwork for the תורה שבעל פה as we know it.
How does one get the strength to make the decision to begin anew at age 40? And how does he revive himself after losing it all and settle for 5 in the place of 24,000?
I think the answer lies in what he saw that day with the rock. The משול that he made was that if soft water can bore a hole through a hard rock then of course words of Torah can penetrate my heart. So the Torah is the water and Rabbi Akiva is… the rock. There was one aspect that Rabbi Akiva had within him that allowed him to see the rock and learn the lesson. He was a rock. He related to the rock and knew that if the rock can be transformed than so can I. And it was with the strength of a rock that he sat through class after class and no doubt endured being ridiculed, but he didn’t give up, because he was a rock and rocks don’t break.
Then years later when the empire that he had built comes crashing to the ground, Rabbi Akiva the rock gets back up brushes off and says no big deal, rocks can get tossed and turned and pushed around but never break. Yes, his massive yeshiva perished and there is a mindset to blame himself for it, but he didn’t listen to that voice, he got back up with iron clad will and started fresh. Who knows if he thought that what he was doing would have such a lasting effect, but time has shown us that those classes that he gave to 5 students gave way for the entire Torah she baal peh as we learn it today.
This week’s Parsha has the Pasuk הצור תמים פעלו, we refer to Hashem as The Rock. Hashem is the solid bedrock and foundation upon which our existence rests. We each have a חלק אלקי ממעל, which means that we each have a piece of the Infinite Rock inside of us. We see from Rabbi Akiva what power and perseverance can be wielded when we are in touch with that part of ourselves.
The same way that metals and precious stones are mined from ore and rocks, so too our rock inside of us can be mined and cultivated to show brilliantly shining diamonds and gems, as well as give us the self-value of gold, and a will of steel that can’t be broken.
We are beginning the new year and going straight from יום טוב to שבת, may we all have the strength to use this special time with Hashem to focus on our relationship with Him and with the rock inside of us all