1. A Countdown to the Encounter
2. Rabbi Akiva Leaves Egypt
3. Following Rabbi Akiva's Lead
A Countdown to the Encounter
The days of the Omer introduce us to two layers of religious observance. The first layer is the Torah commandment to count the Omer, i.e., the obligation to count these days and, in so doing, to prepare oneself to receive the Torah (see Sefer HaChinnukh, commandment 306). The second is the custom, instituted by early authorities, to mourn the deaths of 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva's disciples during this period.
The passage from Passover to Shavuot is characterized by ascent to greatness. We begin with the Egyptian exodus, a kind of birth, a covenant with the nation as it moves from a life of bondage to one of freedom and independence even before it has completely shaken off Egyptian impurity. And we proceed toward a face to face encounter with God, an encounter which cleanses Israel not only of Egyptian impurity but even of the contamination of the original sin, and thus rectifies all physical existence. The counting of the Omer creates a bond between these two events and transforms them into a single process of elevation and growth.
And yet, the fact that there is a road that must be traversed, a process of ascent and advancement, means that this is a delicate and vulnerable situation. The sages of the Midrash teach that "all roads have the status of being dangerous" (Kohelet Rabba 3:3), and the Maharal of Prague explains that "this is because roads lack human settlement and hence are detached from the world, for the world is essentially settlement, and this is a departure from settlement" (Netivot Olam, ch. 1).
This is not a mere statistical, arbitrary detail; it is an essential matter. The road, by its very nature, departs from one populated area and eventually reaches another. As such, it is outside of human settlement, outside of the natural order of things. The very departure from the fixed, secure order of things is in itself a danger, and it is a change which undermines the stability and security of the one who undertakes it.
The road to receiving the Torah is also rife with dangers. Consider Israel's encounter with the Amalekite nation at Rephidim, on the road between the Sea of Reeds and Mount Sinai (Exodus 17:8-13). The sages explain that the Children of Israel were vulnerable at that time because they had become weak in Torah (in Hebrew, the word "Rephidim" implies weakness). This is the danger that exists on the road - weakness, infirmity, and a loss of one's essence. Rabbi Akiva Leaves Egypt
This may provide an added layer of meaning to our mourning over Rabbi Akiva's students. Rabbi Akiva experienced a kind of personal exodus from Egypt.
Rabbi Akiva was the son of converts, an ignoramus who initially hated both the Torah and its sages. Eventually, however, underwent an extreme change and dedicated himself to the study of Torah and its dissemination.
In a few short weeks, Rabbi Akiva's entire life's work was lost - all 24,000 of his students died. But he did not lose hope; he envisioned and forged a new generation of Torah scholars from whom the Oral Torah went forth to the entire Jewish people. In this manner he achieved a kind of "personal" giving of the Torah in which the Torah is given to the entire Jewish people through him.
From the Written Torah, then, we learn the great and lofty value of "the road" and its latent potential. From the sages of the Talmud and the early authorities we learn about the many dangers involved in it as well as our capacity to overcome them and the faith needed to do so.
And just as the Oral Torah and the Written Torah together comprise a single integral whole, so do the two ends of a journey when a person progresses toward a lofty destination. Following Rabbi Akiva's Lead
We have been fortunate that in our own generation the Jewish people have made profound historical advances and have begun to realize the age-old vision of rebirth in their ancestral land. On the one hand, we are certain that we are progressing on the path toward our lofty goal; on the other hand, we know that we have not yet reached our final destination.
Today, we have the good fortune of observing two important landmarks in the midst of the Omer counting period, landmarks which reflect both progress and deficiency. I am referring to Israel's Independence Day and Jerusalem Day. Though these events are intimately bound up with our national rebirth, when it comes to a rebirth of the sacred they are very noticeably lacking. Furthermore, not too long ago we painfully witnessed the destruction of the settlements of Gush Katif and Northern Shomron. This tragedy stemmed entirely from the huge gap between the revival of the mundane and the sacred.
Rabbi Akiva's path can perhaps serve as an example and inspiration for us: Just as Rabbi Akiva, despite the pain and difficulty he must have felt at the death of his students, continued to act and teach, and from him and his students came an Oral Torah which would guide the Jewish people for generations, we too, with God's help, shall continue to build, and from our efforts will come great tidings of redemption for the entire Jewish people.