When Moshe ascended to heaven, he saw Hakadosh Baruch Hu tying crowns to the letters of the Torah. He said, “Ribbono Shel Olam, who is delaying You?” He said to Moshe, “There is one man who will live after many generations, Akiva ben Yosef is his name, and he will deduce heaps of halachot from each and every point” (Menachot 29b).
Of the Ten Martyrs mentioned in the medieval piyyut Eleh Ezkerah, the liturgical poem we recite during Mussaf on Yom Kippur, none is as well-known as Rabi Akiva, the Sage who saw both the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash and the fall of Beitar and yet remained optimistic about the future of Torah and the Jewish People.
Rabi Akiva was neither born into greatness nor crowned as a young man with the title illui (genius). In fact, he was born into a family of converts and could barely distinguish alef from bet for the first forty years of his life. The great turning point occurred when he married Rachel, the daughter of the wealthy Kalba Savua, who immediately disinherited his daughter for marrying an ignorant shepherd. Although the newlyweds were so poor that they were forced to sleep upon straw, Rachel presented her husband with a gift more precious than gold: a belief that he could succeed and even grow great in Torah.
Avot d’Rabbi Natan 6 describes what happened next: “One time he stood by the mouth of a well. He said: ‘Who engraved this stone?’ They told him: ‘It is the water, which falls upon it every day.’” From this, Rabi Akiva realized that just as water can wear away stone, so too can words of Torah make an impact upon a person’s heart.
At first, he and his son learned the alef bet together. Later, Rabi Akiva went to learn at the yeshiva of Rabi Eliezer. He also studied under Nachum Ish Gamzu, from whom he learned that everything Hashem does is for the best. That teaching is immortalized in the famous story of the time Rabi Akiva was forced to sleep in an open field, after the inhabitants of a village refused to give him accommodations. During the night, his lantern was extinguished by the wind, a cat killed his rooster, and a lion ran off with his donkey, yet he said: “Everything that Hashem does is for the best.” The next morning he saw with his own eyes the proof of his words. Soldiers had carried off the village’s inhabitants during the night. If they had seen his lantern or heard his rooster or donkey, he would have been taken captive as well (Berochos 60b).
When he returned to his wife after twenty-four years of learning and teaching Torah, Rabi Akiva brought with him 24,000 talmidim. Those talmidim tried to restrain Rachel from greeting her husband, but Rabi Akiva told them, “Make way for her, for my learning and yours is hers” (Nedarim 50a).
By then, Rabi Akiva was one of the outstanding Torah leaders of the generation. He was one of the four who entered Pardes, or Paradise, and the only one who entered in peace and left in peace (Chagigah 14b). Although he didn’t receive the title of Nasi—that was reserved for Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel II—he did serve as the effective head of the Sanhedrin, located in Usha, as well as head of his yeshiva in Bnei Brak.
In addition to his great erudition, Rabi Akiva was known for his optimism. After Churban Bayit Sheni, he and several other Sages saw a fox running out of the place where the Holy of Holies had stood. While the others wept, he laughed, explaining that if the prophecy regarding the destruction of Jerusalem had been fulfilled, then surely the prophecy regarding the redemption will also be fulfilled (Makkot 24a).