Rabbi Akiva – Part I
Rabbi Yaakov Haber
June 26, 2010
 
3:17 - Rabbi Akiva said: Mockery and levity accustom a man to immorality. The transmitted Oral Torah is a protective fence around the Torah; tithes are a protective fence for wealth; vows are a protective fence for abstinence; a protective fence for wisdom is silence.
 
3:18 - He used to say, Beloved is man, for he was created in G’ds image; it is indicative of a greater love that it was made known to him that he was created in G’d’s image…Beloved are the people Israel, for they are described as children of Hashem….Beloved are the people Israel, for a cherished utensil was given to them…
 
The first Mishnah deals with “Sur mei Ra”, the bad things that one needs to separate from. The second Mishnah deals with “Osei Tov”, the things that we should be drawn to and cherish.  The purpose of the fences here are to protect what is inside the fence.  It iss interesting that Rabbi Akiva speaks against levity, because in the Gemorah Rabbi Akiva is often seen laughing.  When he saw the ruins of the Bais Hamikdosh, the others were crying, and he was laughing.  When he saw the wife of a Roman general, it said he laughed.
 
Let’s begin with the Gemorah in Menochos.  This Gemorah says that when Moshe Rabenu was in Shemayim, he saw Hashem tying crowns onto the letters of the Torah.  He asked, “What are those crowns?”  Hashem answered by showing him a classroom in the future where Rabbi Akiva was teaching his students about the the crowns on the letters of the Torah.  These crowns are called the “Mesorah”. Moshe sat in the 8th row of the class, and someone asked Rabbi Akiva where his knowledge of the crowns of the letters comes from.  Rabbi Akivs answered, “It’s from Moshe Rabenu at Har Sinai”.  When Moshe Rabenu heard this, he was comforted. 
 
One way to understand this, is that that someone once visited the Baal Hatanya, who was learning the book that the Baal Hatanya had himself written.  He pointed to something in the book and asked, “Do you what Pshat in this sentence is?”  The visitor responded by saying, “But you wrote it.”  The Baal Hatanya said, “This was a gift from Hashem, and now I have to understand it just like everyone else.”.  The Torah was given as a package from Hashem to Moshe Rabenu, and Rabbi Akiva helped unwrap the package.  In the Gemorah, Moshe then asked, “What is the reward for such a great man?” Hashem showed him how Rabbi Akiva died, with Romans raking iron combs over his flesh.  Moshe asked how this could be, and Hashem said, “Be quiet.” 
 
Let’s review some of what we know about the life of Rabbi Akiva.  Though we all know these stores, It pays to review them at least once a year. Rabbi Akiva was the son of Gerim.  His father Yoseph was a Ger.  We can assume, though it doesn’t say so explicitly, that his mother was Jewish.  He was a descendent of Sisera Harasha.  We know the story where Sisera, the enemy of Israel, was returning from a battle against the Jews, when Yael enticed him into her tent.  There’s a machlochet whether Yael was Jewish, but she was certainly an Ohaiv Yisroel.  She had relations with Sisera – the Gemorah brings this as an example of Godol Averah Leshema – and while he was sleeping, she drove a tent spike through his head and killed him.  From that union, Yael became pregnant, and Rabbi Akiva is a descendent from that child..  So Rabbi Akiva was the son of Gerim, and descended from Siseara Harasha – he had humble beginnings.
 
Now let’s learn the Gemorah in Kesubos, with additions from Pirkei of Rabbi Nosson.  It says that Rabbi Akiva worked for Kalva Savua, one of the 10 richest men in Israel.  Kalva had many sheep, and Rabbi Akiva was a shepherd – just as Moshe Rabenu was a shepherd, before he became Moshe Rabenu.  Kalva’s daughter Rochel saw great potential in Rabbi Akiva, and told him, “If I accept Kidushin from you, will you learn?”  Rabbi Akiva agreed, and they made Kidushin in secret.  Kalva sent to Rochel many suitors – she was a good catch – but she rejected them all.  After a while, he asked her what she was looking for, and she admitted that she was already Mekadesh to Akiva, his shepherd.  What was he going to tell his friends, that his daughter married Akiva his shepherd, the son of Gerim and the descendent of Sisera Harasha.  Kalva disowned her, and made a neder that she should not get Hanah from any of his wealth. 
 
Rochel and Rabbi Akiva then did Nesuin, and moved into a barn.  It says that in the morning, Rabbi Akiva would take the straw out of Rochel’s hair.  He told her that in the future he hoped to get for her an Ir Shel Zahav, a large piece of gold jewelry with a picture of Yerushalyim on it.  The Gemorah says that Eliyahu came to the door of the barn, disguised as a pauper. Eliyahu said that his wife didn’t have straw to sleep on.  Rabbi Akiva said to Rochel, “Look how fortunate we are, at least we have straw to sleep on”, and they gave Eliyahu half of the straw they had.
 
After a year, Rochel told Akiva that he should go and learn.  So Akiva went to learn in the Yeshivas of Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkanus, who were having many Machloches between themselves.  He asked them, “What’s the meaning of the shape of the Aleph, what’s the meaning of the shape of the Bet”.  This is often misquoted – he didn’t ask what Aleph and the Bet was – he wouldn’t have gone to the Yeshivas of Yehoshua and Eliezer if he didn’t know Aleph Bet.  He wanted to know the meaning of the shapes of the letters.  For example, we learn from Rabbi Akiva that an Aleph is made up of two yuds and a vav, and the significance of what that means.  This puts into perspective the story that he knew the meanings of the crowns on the letters in the Torah. 
 
While Rabbi Akiva was learning in yeshiva, Rochel worked as a maid, and sent her meager wages to Rabbi Akiva so he could continue learning.  After learning for 12 years, Rabbi Akiva returned home to his town of Lud.  We all know the story that he overheard Rochel say, “I would prefer that Akiva learn another 12 years.”  So he turned around, and learned another 12 years.  The meforshim ask, why didn’t he at least say hello.  They answer, to learn 24 years straight is much more than learning 12 years and 12 years.
 
After the 24 years of learning, he returned home to Rochel in Lud.  He was followed by 24,000 Talmidim who wanted to learn with him.  He went to Bnei Brak to open a Yeshiva where these 24,000 Talmidim could learn under him.
 
The Gemara in Psachim quotes Rabbi Akiva who said that before learned, he hated the Chochomim so much that he wanted to bite them like a donkey.  The Gemora asks, why didn’t he say he wanted to bite them like a dog?  It answers that a bite of a dog just draws blood.  A bite of a donkey can crush a person’s bone.  What’s going on here?  Was Rabbi Akiva a good guy, or wasn’t he? There’s a penetrating Tosfos on this Gemorah that you should learn with the Meharshah.  Tosfos says that the Chochomim at that time hated the Am Haretzim, and the Am Haretzim hated them back.  The Chochomim were elitist, and the Am Haretzim sensed that they were despised, and they hated being looked down on.  So the Am Haratezim wanted to get back at the Etzem – the bone – of the Chochimim.
 
Rabbi Akiva was 68 years old when the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed, and he lived until he was 120.  He started learning when he was 40, so he had been running his own yeshiva in Bnei Brak only 4 years when the Churban took place.  He saw that the reason the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed was Sinas Chinum.  The Chochomim were elitist, and they and the ordinary people hated each other.  When Rabbi Shimon Gamliel opened up the Yeshiva in Yavneh, he posted guards to keep out anyone who’s outside was not the same as their inside.
 
Having been one of the Am Haretzim, he saw the problem clearly, and he wanted to create a culture change.  Unfortunately, he didn’t have a chance to do that with his 24,000 talmidim in his Yeshiva, because they had already been affected by this attitude. They didn’t give koved to each other, and as a result, they died between the period of Pesach and Shavuous.  So Rabbi Akiva had to start over, and teach new people his perspective.
 
Rabbi Akiva summarized what he saw as his task with the words, “Ahavta Lerecha Kemocha”, you should love your fellow as yourself.  The Torah we have is from Rabbi Akiva, it all goes through Rabbi Akiva.  The Gemorah says that when someone met Rabbi Akiva, the person said, “You are known from one end of the world to the other.”  One of the meforshim says that the Gematria of this phrase in Hebrew is 564, which corresponds to the 564 times that Rabbi Akiva is mentioned in Shas.  Some of the Chochomim we learn 7 things from, others 10 things from, and from Rabbi Akiva we learn 564 things from. Our Torah comes through Rabbi Akiva, the hallachah is like Rabbi Akiva. He saw that Sinas Chinum and Elitism were essential problems, and his answer was Ahavta Lerecha Kemocha.
 
The Gemorah says that Kalva Savua, Rochel’s father, went to Rabbi Akiva to ask for him to Mafer his Neder about his daughter.  Rabbi Akiva asked, did you imagine that Roche’s husband would become a talmid chachim, and Kalva said no.  And through this opening, this ‘pesach’, Rabbi Akiva was able to Meafer Kalva’s neder. Kalva then gave to Rabbi Akiva and Rochel half of his estate.  At the same time, a rich Roman gave to Rabbi Akiva his estate. So Rabbi Akiva became rich.  It says that Rabbi Akiva’s ladders were made of gold, and his house was filled with silver and gold. He then gave to Rochel the Ir Shel Zahav, this large piece of gold jewelry that had carved onto it the city of Yerushalayim.  Some of his talmidim said that their wives now will want this piece of jewelry, it was causing a problem of sholom bais. Rabbi Akiva answered that Rochel had worked very hard for him to become who he was, and she deserved it.
 
To see the extent to which Rabbi Akiva carried this principal of Ahavta Leracha Kemocha – and to see the quality that Rochel had seen in him originally – let’s learn from a Midrash Tanchuma from Parshat Noach.  This Medresh is also found in other places, and it’s brought down in the halachah. 
 
It says that Rabbi was in a graveyard, when he met someone who was all covered in black, like a coal miner or chimney sweep. The person was carrying an enormous bundle of wood. Rabbi Akiva said to the person, “If you are an evid, then your owner is mistreating you, and I will redeem you.  If you are a worker, then I will make you an Osher.”  The person said, “It won’t help. I am dead.  I did many averos in my life, and this is my Gehenim.  Every day, I have to gather wood to make a big fire, and then I have to jump into it.  I was a tax collector.  I would make the life of the rich unbearable, and I would kill the poor.  (I can make copies of this sheet, and you can bring it with you to the Arnona office).  I once raped a Kalah on Yom Kippur.” 
 
What do you say to someone like this? Rabbi Akiva said, “Bni – my son - is there anything that I can do to help you?” – after hearing all this, he called him ‘my son!”  The person responded, “There is no Takanah, no remedy.”  But then he added, “But there is one thing.  When I died, my wife was pregnant, and if she had a son, and if he says, ‘Baruch Hashem Mamvoroch’, then I will get out of Gehenom.”  Rabbi Akiva asked, “What is your name?” The man answered, “Akiva” Rabbi Akiva then asked, “What is your wife’s name, and what is the town you lived in?”, and he told Rabbi Akiva.
 
Rabbi Akiva then went from town to town, looking for the town that he mentioned.  When he found the town, he asked for the man’s wife.  Someone answered, “Oh her.  May she and her husband rot in hell.”  Rabbi Akiva then found the boy, and he started teaching him.  But the boy couldn’t learn. So Rabbi Akiva fasted for 40 days so that the boy would have the siatah deshmahya to be able to learn.  After 40 days, a Bas Kol came down.  Usually a Bas Kol says something, this Bas Kol asked incredulously, “Is this the boy you are fasting for?”  Rabbi Akiva simply answered, “Hain”, yes.  So the boy was able to start learning. Rabbi Akiva started teaching him Shema, brochas, and davening.  Finally, the boy had reached the level where he could stand before an Aron Kodesh, and say, “Boruch Hashem Hamvorach”.  It wasn’t enough just to say it, he had to understand what he was saying.  After the boy said it, the boy’s father was saved from Gehenim. 
 
How many Rebbes when confronted by a boy who can’t learn, will fast for 40 days so that the boy gets the siatah deshmaya to be able to learn.  How many people, if they met someone who was a Rasha in Gehenim would call the person, “Bni”, My son?  Rabbi Akiva knew that the Bais Hamikdosh had been destroyed due to Sinat Chinum.  Before he was learning, Rabbi Akiva had been on the receiving end of being despised by the Chochomim.  He knew that the cure and the answer is Ahavta Leracha Kemocha.  The hallachah, the mesorah, and the Torah we have today is from Rabbi Akiva.