The festival of Lag B’Omer revolves around two celebrated personalities: Rabbi Akiva and his talmid, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. These two legends lived through the dark period of Roman conquest and oppression. Living through this crucial seam of Jewish history, they each steadied Judaism for the long, 2,000-year journey through the wilderness of Exile. Their lives provide critical messages for our gradual emergence from the corona pandemic.
Rabbi Akiva’s story contained many riveting chapters. Until the age of 40 he was a complete ignoramus, unable to read even basic Jewish letters. Roused by watching the impact of water upon stone and unconditionally supported by his dedicated wife, he studied Torah for 24 uninterrupted years, becoming one of the most eminent Torah scholars in history. His wife was initially disowned by her father, who fumed at her marrying an ignorant shepherd. Upon realizing the eminence of Rabbi Akiva, this unwilling father-in-law ultimately showered great wealth upon his remarkable son-in-law. Rabbi Akiva’s gripping life was full of drama, iconic moments and extraordinary transformations.
But for Rabbi Akiva, these remarkable transformations were just the beginning. His triumph quickly transformed into tragedy. Having raised an entire generation of Torah students, he witnessed their catastrophic death—during the 30 days between Pesach and Shavuot; the gruesome death rate only abated on Lag B’Omer. Imagine the anguish of witnessing this horror and watching your life’s accomplishments vanish before your eyes!
Indescribably, Rabbi Akiva’s personal suffering was soon surpassed by a devastating national disaster. No nation had dared to oppose the indomitable Roman Empire—no nation except for the Jews. Bristling at the destruction of the Temple, followed by Roman attempts to illegalize several core mitzvot, the scattered Jews launched a ferocious rebellion. Jews always stand up to the wicked and to the cruel, and soon our insurrection sent shock waves throughout the Roman Empire. Witnessing the initial success of the Jewish uprising, and the temporary liberation of Jerusalem, Rabbi Akiva knighted its leader Bar Kochba as the Jewish messiah. Sadly, around 133 BCE, the Jewish rebellion was violently suppressed and the last bastion city of Beitar was mercilessly butchered. Rabbi Akiva’s hope for a messianic rebirth was crushed under the boots of the Roman legions. Everything Rabbi Akiva had crafted during his heroic lifetime was disassembled. His precious students perished and his messianic vision dissolved. This elderly man—nearing 120 years of age—had every reason to “give up” in frustration. No one could blame him for surrendering to the harshness of this dark world.
Yet, he began a new chapter of his life. He taught five new rabbis who would radically change the world of Torah. Most of the soon-to-be-codified Oral Torah would be based upon the teachings of Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Yehuda—four out these five “super students.” Soon imprisoned for teaching Torah, Rabbi Akiva defiantly continued his educational mission during his incarceration. Despite the frustration and the trauma of losing 24,000 students and the sadness of dashed messianic expectations, Rabbi Akiva, at an advanced age, changed the world of Torah for eternity.
Rabbi Akiva displayed great courage but also uncanny resilience. Life often shatters our greatest accomplishments and grinds our dreams to dust. Lying amidst the rubble we face a fateful decision: either we surrender to the mercilessness and unjustness of our world, or we rebuild our dreams. Rebuilding takes great patience, resilience and careful deliberation; some parts of a broken past should be replicated whereas other aspects must be updated or reformulated. Rebuilding requires courage and defiance but also wisdom and vision.
Post-corona we have all lost part of our previous world. The frustration and disappointment can be overwhelming and it can also become paralyzing. Can we summon the courage of Rabbi Akiva and rebound and rebuild? Are we wise enough to identify which parts of our lost worlds are to be recycled and which parts reimagined?
The second icon of Lag B’Omer was Rabbi Shimon—one of five post-pandemic students of Rabbi Akiva, who passed on this day. While Rabbi Akiva was facing off against the Romans, Rabbi Shimon was in hiding. He had vocalized derogatory views about Roman policies, and had a bounty placed upon him. He and his son bolted to a cave, living for 12 years in hiding from their Roman trackers. Secure in his cave, Rabbi Shimon was actually spared the martyrdom that Rabbi Akiva and his contemporaries faced.
Upon hearing of the death of the caesar and the commuting of his sentence, Rabbi Shimon and his son exited their hideaway looking to rejoin society. What they saw shocked them! People were immersed in their daily work routine, forfeiting potential Torah study for common occupation. The newly liberated Rabbi Shimon and his son couldn’t fathom tepid dedication to Torah study, and they couldn’t imagine abandoning eternity for the sake of transience. After all they had sacrificed for Torah, this behavior was incomprehensible and maddening. Furious at this affront to the ideal of Torah study, Rabbi Shimon and his son incinerated everyone they gazed upon. A heavenly voice announced in disbelief, “Have you emerged to annihilate my world? Return to your cave.” Ironically, a year later, they re-emerged, and though Rabbi Shimon was more temperate, his son was still enraged by this wayward behavior. His anger was only placated upon meeting a commoner hustling home for Shabbat grasping two branches of a hadasim bush. This man explained that he had gathered these aromatic branches to enhance his Shabbat table. This simple love for Shabbat by an ordinary villager pacified the son’s wrath. At this stage, though Rabbi Shimon and his son expected more from the common people, they were able to accept less. Though the father and his son dreamed of an ideal world, they acknowledged that life doesn’t always accommodate all our lofty ideals. They became more gracious to human frailty.
We are emerging from our own caves. After a year of social distancing and endless quarantining we are restarting our social lives—shuls, schools, communal gatherings. Having lived more “alone” or more separate from society, we are now once again confronting differences—different views, ideologies, lifestyles, levels of commitment. Our year of suffering and our year of vulnerability should make us more tolerant and more accepting of others. Living with our own frailties should make us more gracious even to the inadequacies or frailties of other people. If we become more antagonistic and more judgmental we are still stuck in our caves of intolerance and antagonism. We may have walked out of our homes, but our hearts and imaginations are still incarcerated.
Rabbi Akiva’s life lessons us in the resiliency necessary to succeed in rebuilding our own world. Rabbi Shimon’s story of exiting the cave reminds us to be gracious to everyone else, as they build theirs.
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.