It was also Rabi Akiva who comforted the people when the Kohen Gadol could no longer perform the Yom Kippur Avodah in the Beit HaMikdash. As it says in Yoma 85b, “Rabi Akiva said, ‘Fortunate are you, O Israel! Who purifies you, and before Whom are you purified? Before your Father in Heaven… Hashem is the mikveh of Israel.’ Just as a mikveh purifies the defiled, so too Hashem purifies Israel.”
Rabi Akiva was already an elderly man when the Roman Emperor Hadrian began to institute many cruel decrees, including the leveling of Jerusalem to build a pagan city on its ruins and the outlawing of many mitzvos, including brit milah and the teaching of Torah. While many of the leaders of the time were against an open revolt, Rabi Akiva supported Shimon Bar Kosiba, whom he renamed Bar Kochba and declared to be Mashiach. But the Roman army all too quickly reversed Bar Kochba’s early military successes and the tragedies began to multiply. The revolt ended with the fall of Beitar and the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Jews.
Rabi Akiva had become disillusioned with Bar Kochba even before his defeat in battle, since the warrior had become arrogant, ascribing victory to his own might, rather than to the will of Hashem. And even though Rabi Akiva had witnessed the death by plague of the 24,000 talmidim he had taught in his younger years, still he did not despair. Rabi Akiva began anew and taught five talmidim who would become the leaders of the next generation: Rabi Meir, Rabi Yehudah, Rabi Yose, Rabi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabi Elazar ben Shamua (Yevamot 62b).
Teaching Torah was, of course, against the law, and the Romans arrested Rabi Akiva. The hour of his death is described in Berachot 61b, which relates that his students saw him reciting Shema with joy, while his executioners lacerated his flesh with iron combs. When theyasked if a person was obligated to recite Shema even under such dire circumstances, Rabi Akiva explained, “All my life I wondered whether I would ever fulfill the verse ‘with all my soul,’ meaning ‘even if He takes my soul.’ Now that the opportunity has arrived, should I not seize it?”
His last word was echad (one). A heavenly voice announced: “Blessed are you, Rabi Akiva, that your life expired with echad.”
Next Week: For These We Cry—Rabi Chananya ben Teradyon