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January 19, 2017 / 21 Tevet, 5777
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Rabi Akiva Clarifies

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The Strength Of Suffering

Man does not have it easy in this world. Sufferings are often visited upon him tempting him to curse his fate and ask why the Almighty punishes him so. But suffering has great value and serves a vital purpose. Rabi Akiva teaches this a clear and beautiful way.

Rabi Eliezer had been very ill and suffered a great deal. Fortunately, G-d had mercy upon the great sage and moved him from death’s door. As he improved, his devoted students came to visit him to voice their love and to give thanks that he had recovered.

“You are more important to us than the rain from heaven,” said Rabi Tarfon, “for rain is only important in this world but you, our Rebbe, are important both in this world and in the World to Come.”

“You are more important to us than the rays of the sun” declared Rabi Yehoshua, “for the sun is only vital to us in this world and not in the World to come.

“More,” said Rabi Elazar ben Azarya, “our Rebbe is more important to us than our own parents. They only bring us into this world but our Rebbe guides us in this world and leads us into the World to Come.”

When it was Rabi Akiva’s turn to comfort his master, he rose and said:

“Sweet are our sufferings.”

Everyone stared at Rabi Akiva, puzzled at the meaning of his words. Even Rabi Eliezer looked at his student and said to those around him:

“Let me sit up so that I may better hear and understand Akiva’s words.”

When he was propped up by his students, Rabi Eliezer asked:

“Tell me, my son, what did you mean when you said that our sufferings are sweet and dear to us. How do you know such a thing?”

“I have learned this from King Chizkiyahu,” Rabi Akiva replied. “Here was a great scholar and king who was able to teach Torah to all of Israel, but he was unable to teach his own son, Menashe, the ways of goodness and truth. His son walked on the path of wickedness and there was nothing the father could do.

“It was only when the Assyrian hordes captured him and tortured him and made his life bitter that he turned his eyes to Heaven and prayed to the Almighty.

“We see, therefore, that suffering, although apparently bitter, was the one thing that enabled a sinner to return unto G-d. Are we not justified then in saying that suffering is dear and sweet to man?”

The Right To Heal

There are certain misguided souls who believe that any nature which comes from G-d, must not be tampered with and should be allowed to take its course. Thus, when an illness strikes them or someone they love, they refuse to use the power of medicine, contending that this is going against the Will of G-d.

This is not the Jewish way as we can see from the following story:

One day, as Rabi Akiva and Rabi Yehoshua walked along the streets of Jerusalem engrossed in Torah conversation, a man looking weak and sickly approached them:

“Forgive me, Rebbe, for interrupting you but I am in need of assistance.”

“We will be glad to help you if we are able,” said the scholars.

“I am a very sick man and I suffer greatly. I have gone to many doctors who are unable to help me. Perhaps you can.”

The two sages, aside from being great Torah scholars, were also well versed in the science of medicine. They asked the man:

“What are your symptoms so that we may be able to diagnose your case?”

The man detailed his symptoms and they said:

“If you eat this specific food and drink this specific drink you will find yourself getting better.”

The man thanked them profusely and hurried away to do as they said.

One of the inhabitants of Jerusalem had watched the scene and heard the conversation. Walking over to Rabi Akiva and Rabi Yehoshua he asked:

“Tell me, who made this man ill?”

“Why, surely it was the Almighty,” replied the sages. “He is the One who moves all things in this world.”

“If that is so,” countered the man, “how dare you go against His Will? If the Almighty desired a man to be sick, how can you take it upon yourselves to defy His Will?”

“Tell me,” said Rabi Akiva, “what is your occupation?”

“I am a farmer,” replied the man. “I have a large and beautiful field outside of Jerusalem.”

“I see,” said Rabi Akiva. “And who created the earth on which you work?”

“Why, the Almighty,” said the man.

“And what do you do to your field in order that it shall bring forth wheat?”

“I work very hard,” said the man. “I clear the land of stones and thistles, plough it, sow it, and finally reap it. It is laborious work to make this land productive.”

“But how dare you go against the Will of G-d,” said Rabi Akiva. “After all, He made this land sickly and unproductive and you now come and attempt to make it grow things by your own hands. Why do you not wait until the Almighty makes the produce grow by itself?”

“But that is impossible,” cried the man. “Man must work the soil or nothing will ever grown.”

“Remember,” said Rabi Akiva, “man is like the tree of the field too. He needs medicine, he needs help and the Almighty desires us to improve on the world that He created.

Rabbi Sholom Klass

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