Thank you for joining our fourth class of Portraits in Leadership: Timeless Tales for Inspired Living. We began with Rabbi Akiva’s early years as a shepherd. One day, while walking in the fields, Rabbi Akiva noticed a rock formation that had been created through many years of water droplets falling onto the rock’s surface. Contemplating the scene, he reasoned that if water could have such an impact on the hard rock, then Torah would be able to mold and shape his heart. Rachel, seeing his potential despite his lack of schooling, married him on the condition that he study Torah. Her father considered the match unfitting, and he disowned her.
Their marriage began with great poverty, but Rachel was not dissuaded from encouraging Rabbi Akiva’s studies. He left home for twenty-four years at her urging and returned with twenty-four thousand students. When he returned and saw Rachel pushing toward him in the crowd, he told the students to make way for her because all that he and they possessed was due to her. Rachel’s father annulled his vow, and they lived in great wealth. Rabbi Akiva bought his wife a golden tiara with the image of Jerusalem as a sign of his appreciation for her long years of sacrifice.
Rabbi Akiva’s students perished within a short span of time. Tradition attributes the cause of their death to the fact that they did not show sufficient respect to one another. Despite this crushing loss at an advanced age, Rabbi Akiva nurtured additional students who were key to the survival and preservation of the oral tradition. Rabbi Akiva’s optimism and resilience is also demonstrated in an incident in which he could not find lodging and lost his lamp, his donkey and his rooster while out in the field at night. He remained positive that this was for the best, and in fact, he escaped being captured by robbers as a result of these seemingly unlucky events. In yet another illustration of optimism, Rabbi Akiva laughed when seeing the razed site of the temple, understanding this to be the first stage in its rebuilding and the beginning of the fulfillment of the prophecies of redemption.
Rabbi Akiva hoped that the Bar Kochba revolt would usher in a better era, but these hopes were unfulfilled. As a result of the failure of the revolt, Roman rule became more oppressive and Torah learning was outlawed. Rabbi Akiva nevertheless continued to teach, seeing this as vital to life itself. The Romans arrested Rabbi Akiva, and after two years of imprisonment, he was cruelly put to death. Rabbi Akiva died with the shema on his lips, seeing his death as an opportunity to give his very life to G-d.
Despite many setbacks, Rabbi Akiva’s perseverance and constant optimism prevailed. Judaism was imperiled, and only one person could save the Torah and Judaism. What can one person accomplish? Perhaps we should ask instead, “what can’t one person accomplish, given sufficient resolve and determination?” Thank you again for joining us, and I hope to see you next week for our next portrait, Rabbi Meir.