Counting sefirah forces us to think about time that is passing. Each night we add means that another day has slipped through our fingers.
We contemplate, too, the suffering of Rabbi Akiva. This great rebbe who began at zero, not even knowing the Aleph–Bais, then worked himself up and raised 24,000 students. He toiled. He sweat. He gave it his all. He left his beloved wife Rachel behind to create sanctity in this world, as she, herself, sacrificed the lux life she always knew. She wanted her husband to become the Torah scholar she had dreamt of. They forfeited fortune and were outcasts in her wealthy father’s home. All so that Akiva, the shepherd should grow to become Rabbi Akiva, the teacher of Torah’s secrets.
After living a life filled with mesirus nefesh, Rabbi Akiva confronts a painful reality. 24,000 talmidim gone. Their breath of life extinguished in a frightening pandemic. 12,000 pairs of students who were truly considered Rabbi Akiva’s children, lost. Can we even begin to imagine the anguish raging through Rabbi Akiva’s heart? Day after day of heart-wrenching levayas. Trying to comfort thousands of widows and orphans. Feeling the loss of each talmid, while remembering the smile on their lips and hearing the sound of their voices. The beis medrash that had been filled with the music of chavrusas channeling words of Torah now stiflingly empty. The silence is deafening. It can drive one mad.
Rabbi Akiva could have easily given up. He could have said “I’m done. Obviously this is not my calling. I’m a failure. How could I ever have thought I would be a rebbe? Why would I imagine that I could live my dream?” He could have put all his joy and passion for Torah away and say “impossible.” And no one would blame him.
But instead, an incredible journey began. Out of the suffering Rabbi Akiva began all over again. Instead of giving in, he began giving out. He transmitted his Torah diamonds to five students and refused to surrender. These five became pillars of Torah who continued his legacy and kept the secrets of his wisdom alive.
After tasting pain and challenge we must draw upon the strength of Rabbi Akiva. His courage has sustained us throughout the centuries.
I am reminded of the scene described to me, as my grandparents walked with my mother and her two brothers searching for family after surviving the gehenom of Bergen Belsen. Each person he would meet, Zayda would ask the same question. “Do you know what happened to my family? My parents? My brothers and sisters?”
But there was only sadness and silence. No one knew.
One day Zayda heard the tragic news. Everyone had been killed in the gas chambers. There was no one left. Zayda was the only one who had survived.
My mother watched as her father, in one of his most terrible moments of his entire life, gave out an anguished cry to the heavens above.
“Ribbono Shel Olam, ich beit nur eine zach!….Master of this Universe, I ask You only one thing! One thing only! That all of my children, and all of my children’s children, and all Yiddishe kinderlach – all Jewish children – zolen bleiben bei Torah – should live loyal to Torah.”
This is the power of the Jew. We face challenges. We walk through fire. We live through churban and indescribable devastation. But through it all we raise our hands up and cry out “Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad.”
We never give up. Not on ourselves and not on our faith.