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To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicatedin the memory of

R. Avraham ben-tziyon ben shabtai

To regain one's composure after all has been lost. To pick up the pieces and start all over again. These are the traits which characterized Rabbi Akiva. For Rabbi Akiva it was never too late. He refused to be broken even in the darkest hour.

Our Sages relate that Rabbi Akiva didn't begin studying Torah until the age of forty. Up until then he hadn't touched a book. Yet, despite his advanced age, he set about studying with perfect faith that he would eventually succeed. With great self discipline and extreme patience he resigned himself to the task. Once, while standing by a brook he noticed a stone which had been worn away by the water. Considering this he said to himself: "If gently flowing water is capable of wearing a hole in a stone, then certainly the Torah which is tougher than iron is capable of penetrating my heart, mere flesh and blood." With the exception of two times a year, on the eve's of Passover and Yom Kippur, he was never heard to say "Let us take leave of the study hall." Because of his stubborn persistence, it was not long before he finally became the great Torah scholar we remember him as today: a respected mentor of twenty four thousand disciples.

And then, suddenly, tragedy struck. In a very short period of time a plague took the lives of all of his students. His entire Torah empire crumbled in an instant. His world, it seemed, had come to an end. What could be more disappointing? How does one recover from such a blow? Usually in times like these a person looses self-confidence, and begins to second question the worth of his efforts. Rabbi Akiva, though, didn't give in. He picked himself up and started all over again. He made a journey to the south where there remained some Torah scholars and began to teach them.

Rabbi Akiva yearned for the redemption of his people. When Bar-Kochba raised the banner of resistance to Roman imperialism in the Land of Israel, Rabbi Akiva joined him. The Rambam (Maimonides) testifies to the fact that "Rabbi Akiva, the great Mishnaic sage, acted as arms-bearer to King Bar-Kochba. He, together with the rest of the sages in his time, believed Bar-Kochba to be the messiah, until he was finally killed as a result of his sins." The realization that Bar Kochba was not the messiah, and the tragedy of the Betar massacre which accompanied it, were more disappointments for Rabbi Akiva. Yet, once again he remained optimistic. He continued to have faith, to hope and yearn for eventual salvation. Most important, he continued studying Torah. When eventually the wicked Roman Empire decreed that the Jewish People be forbidden to study Torah, Rabbi Akiva didn't hesitate defying the decree in public, and would gather large groups of people and fearlessly teach them Torah. In the end he was caught and put into prison. Later he was put to death, and in so doing sanctified G-d's name.

The very life of Rabbi Akiva itself was a sanctification of G-d's holy name. He was one of those rare individuals who managed to see the good in every hardship which befell him. He used to say: "Whatever G-d decrees is for the best." In fact, it was he who, upon seeing a fox coming out of the ruined Holy of Holies, exclaimed "whatever G-d decrees is for the best". While his companions cried out in mourning at the sight of the Temple in ruins, Rabbi Akiva laughed, for he already envisioned the future redemption and the rebuilding of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

In trying times the spirit of Rabbi Akiva illuminates the path of the Jewish People. His might and courage, his perfect faith that "this, too, is for the best", support and guide us. The strength of Rabbi Akiva lives on, helping us to overcome all weakness, to turn darkness into light, seeming defeat into triumphant victory.
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