Rabbi Akiva
Rabbi Yaacov Haber
Pirkei Avos begins by saying that “Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and masrah, transmitted it to Yehoshua”.  Then it says “Yehoshua to the Edlers, the Elders to the Neviim, and the Neviim mesruah, transmitted it to the Anshei Keneset Hagedolah”.  Why is the word masrah, to transmit, mentioned a second time?  I’ve tried to show that there was a dramatic change in how the Mesorah was transmitted.  It started totally as a top-down process, from the top meaning Shamayim, to the bottom meaning the earth.  After the first Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed, the Chochomim such as Ezra became more involved in recreating and rediscovering the Mesorah. 
As we saw, another juncture happened when they had forgotten whether to bring the Korbon Pesach on Shabbos.  They asked for someone who could remember the Hallachah, and Hillel came along and used 7 of the 13 hermeneutical principals to show – through Kal Vechomer, Gezera Shava, and so on – that it was permitted to bring the Korban Pesach on Shabbos.  This was an important change because he showed that when the Hallachah is forgotten, it can be rediscovered through the 13 hermeneutical methods that are also Hallachah meMoshe meSinai.
We’ve seen another juncture after the second Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed, when Yochonon ben Zakai moved the center of Torah learning to Yavne.  There we saw the conflict between Eliezer ben Hurkanis and Yehoshua where there was a conflict between the Mesorah that Eliezer represented, and the derived law that Yehoshua represented, and when these two came in conflict, the Chochomim chose to go with the derived law.
At each of these stages, the Chochomim became more involved, and the process became more bottom up rather than just top down.  This has the disadvantage of it not being totally and directly from Shamayim.  But as the Chochomim became more involved, it has a different type of Kedushah that comes from our greater involvement in the process.
Rabbi Eliezer, who advocated pure Mesorah, represents Gevurah which is like a closed, tight, powerful fist - ztimztum.  Yehoshua, who advocated the more creative involvement of the Chochomim in rederiving the laws, represents Chesed and Rachamim, which is like an open and giving hand – hispatchus.  In Kaballah, the combination of Gevurah and Chesed is Tiferet, which is at the center – and in the end results in Malchus and Moshiach.  In all activities in life it’s important to have this balance of Gevurah and Chesed – such as in parenting and teaching. This is Kabalah 101. 
As we will see, Rabbi Akiva represents this fusion of Gevurah and Chesed.  There’s so much to say about Rabbi Akiva.  There is so much written about him in the Gemorah, more than any of the other Chochomim.  One should make a movie about his life, it would be so dramatic. 
Rabbi Akiva was the son of a Ger, Yoseph.  And his mother was also a Geirus.  His parents were poor and uneducated, and Akiva also was uneducated.  Akiva worked as a shepherd for a wealthy person Kalva Savuah. Akiva had a wife who, according to different mesorahs, either died or whom he divorced.  He had a son Yehoshua. Then, when Akiva was 40, Kalvuah’s daughter Rochel, saw something special in Akiva, that he had tremendous potential, and she suggested that they marry.   The Yerushalmi says that they married secretly.  Kalva, when he found out, fired Akiva and threw Rochel out of the house, and they lived in a barn.  The Gemorah says that after sleeping in the barn, Rochel would take hay out of her hair.  After they became better off, Akiva brought Rochel an Ir Shel Zahav, a pin of gold with a representation of Yerushalayim that she could put in her hair.  Rochel suggested that Akiva join a Cheder to learn, and he and his son began by learning the Aleph Bet. 
The Gemorah tells a story that after he learned awhile, he found a Mase Mitzvah in a field.  He picked it up, and carried in 13 mil.  He then ran into Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua.  Rabbi Eliezer said, you’ve done the wrong thing – a Mase Mitzvah should be buried where it’s found.  Akiva realized he had a lot more to learn, and he learned at two Yeshivas – Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua.  Rabbi Gamliel set up a series of Yeshivas from Akko to Ashkelon, all along the coast.  The Yeshivas of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua were the two main Yeshivas, and that’s where Akiva learned for the next 24 years.  The Gemorah says that he came back to visit Rochel after 12 years, and he overheard Rochel saying that if she had her wish, Akiva would learn another 12 years.  So he left and learned another 12 years. 
Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz asks why didn’t he at least say hello, or stay a week with his wife. He answers that there’s no comparison between learning 12 years and then another 12 years, compared with learning 24 years.  Akiva learned 13 of those years under Rabbi Eliezer.  At Rabbi Eliezer’s Yeshiva, it was all Mesorah – Eliezer would teach what he knew, and there wasn’t much dialog.  You would sit and listen to the Mesorah that Eliezer transmitted.
Now lets learn a Mishnah in Pesachim.  It’s a very long Mishnah about whether an issur Derabonim involving the Korban Pesach – such as cutting off a mum – is docheh Shabbos.  The Mishnah is a dialog between Eliezer and Yehoshua.  Yehoshua says that it’s a Kal vechomer – if the Korban Pesach can be shechted (an issur daraiseh) that is, if it can be done on Shabbos, then certainly an issur derabonim could be done.  Eliezer argues that Shechting the Korban Pesach has to be done, so that’s why it is dochech Shabbos, but cutting off a mum doesn’t have to be done, so it’s not dochech Shabbos. 
This argument goes back and forth, and then Akiva steps in.  He uses logic from Zerikas a dam – sprinkling the blood – and shechting Carbonos – to prove that Rabbi Yehoshua is right.  Akiva had spoken up and used logic, something that would not have been done at Rabbi Eliezer’s Yeshiva.  Then in the Gemorah, Rabbi Eliezer says, “Because you used a proof from Shechting, you will meet your end through Shechting”.  This response is very difficult to understand.  It echoes what Eliezer said when Akiva visits Rabbi Eliezer on his death bed, and Eliezer also says that Akiva will meet a violent death. 
So Rabbi Akiva took the two main drochim – that of Eliezer who was all Mesorah, Gevurah – and Yehoshua who believed more in deriving the Hallachah through logic, that represents Rachamim – and combined it into Tiferet.  And it’s this combination that has become the basis for our learning from that point on.  Rabbi Akiva had 300 main talmidim, and 24,000 followers. 
Now let’s learn the Gemorah in Menochos.  It says that Moshe went to Shemayim, and saw Hashem tying crowns onto the letters of the Torah.  Moshe asked what are you doing, and Hashem says, “These crowns are going to used by another one – Akiva – to derive Hallachahs from.”   Moshe says, I don’t understand, perhaps you can show me what you mean.  So since there is no time for Hashem, he took Moshe forward in time where Akiva was teaching laws based on these crowns.  Moshe sat in the 8th row - some say the 18th row - and he couldn’t understand what was being said, until Akiva said, “These are Halachah meMoshe meSinai.”  The Gemorah then says that Moshe was comforted.
Moshe then says to Hashem, since Akiva is so great, why didn’t you give the Torah through him?  Hashem says, “Be quiet, I know what I’m doing”.  Moshe asks, “What will the schar, reward, be for such a great man?”  Hashem answers, “He will die with iron combs tearing his flesh.”
This is all difficult to understand.  Why was Moshe comforted when Akiva said that learning from the crows is Hallachah meMoshe meSinai.  And what does this mean if Moshe himself didn’t understand what Akiva was teaching?  And how is dying a violent death a ‘schar’, a reward, for this teaching.
The Medresh says that Hashem began by creating the world through din.  But the world could not survive with din – so Hashem then added Rachamim.  Hashem had to begin the transmission of the Torah through only Mesorah – Gevurah – top to bottom.  But as time progressed, the Chochomim became more involved, even in deriving the laws through logic.  And this represents Rachamim, bottom to top.  The important thing to understand is that this second stage, the greater involvement of Man, is also intended from the beginning, it is also Hallachah meMoshe meSinai.  Moshe saw this, and that’s why he was comforted. 
Rav Tzodok asks an interesting question.  Almost all the Yom Tovem have specific dates.  Pesach is on the 14th of Nisan, Rosh Hashonah is on the 1st of Tishrei, and so on with Yom Kippur and Succos.  Then why isn’t there a specific date specified for Shavuous.  Why doesn’t the Torah say that the Torah was given on the 7th of Sivan?  Rav Tzodok answers because the Torah wasn’t given on the 7th of Sivan. The Torah existed before the creation of the world, and it is continued to be given to his very day.  Chidushim that a young student comes up with today is part of the ever continuing giving of the Torah.  It’s true that on Shavuous there was a tremendous Gilui, revelation of Torah, greater than ever took place before or since.  But the process in an ever continuing process.  And our involvement, as Rabbi Akiva showed, enables a different kind, and perhaps even a greater kind, of Kedushah to emerge, because it comes from our involvement.
And the proof is that we are here, learning Torah.  If we had to depend only on Mesorah, it would have been almost impossible as we had to survive pogroms and hollaucausts.  It’s through our ever involvement and re-deriving of the Mesorah that the Mesorah has remained alive and fresh. 
Why was Rabbi Akiva’s violent death called a schar, a reward?  Because he was still going against the grain, he was going against the strict reliance on Mesorah that Eliezer wanted him to do.  And even though it is necessary, it still comes with a price.