Wednesday, April 29, 2015, was a beautiful spring afternoon, ideal for any baseball fan to “buy some peanuts and Crackerjacks without a care if he’d ever get back.” The strange thing was that at Camden Yards, where the Baltimore Orioles beat the Chicago White Sox 8-2, there were no peanuts or Crackerjacks sold, not even a hot dog or a beer. When Chris Davis hit a three-run homer in the first inning, not a single fan cheered. In fact, there was not a single fan in attendance. The 45,971 seats and three decks of Camden Yards were eerily empty. Because of the recent rioting in Baltimore and the imposed nightly curfew, the game was played during the day and no fans were allowed into the stadium.
In the post-Covid era that may not seem so impressive. For much of the 2020 baseball season, games were played in empty stadiums, with few to no cheering fans and every person in the stadium having to undergo a Covid test before the game.
Almost any sports team has more wins at home than they do on the road. It’s far easier to play your hardest when you’re being cheered on by thousands of people who are enthralled by every accomplishment and are rooting passionately for your success. Conversely, it is far more challenging to play in front of a crowd that is hoping for your discombobulation and defeat.
A rebbe of mine related that he was once invited to speak in a certain upscale shul. When he and his wife arrived at the beautiful and imposing building a few minutes before he was scheduled to begin his lecture, the brass gates in front were locked and the lights were out. He rang the bell and after a few moments, a non-Jewish caretaker came to the gate. When my rebbe explained to him that he was speaking in a few minutes, the caretaker replied that he knew nothing about it. Still, he allowed my rebbe and his wife in and gave them a tour of the building.
While they were standing in the shul, two women came in. One of them was carrying a pile of fliers and introduced herself as the woman who had invited him to speak. She apologized profusely and explained that the flyers had inadvertently never been sent and no one knew about the lecture. She herself was not even able to stay. The other woman there worked in the shul office and had overheard about the lecture, so she remained to hear it.
My rebbe stood in the front of the room and delivered his lecture while the lone woman listened and wrote notes feverishly throughout.
The most astounding part of the story to me is that my rebbe was not at all bothered by the incident. At times when I arranged for him to speak, and I was concerned that perhaps not so many people would come, he would recount that incident. He would laugh and say that the attendance doesn’t matter to him at all. He truly felt that it was a zechus for him to give the shiur to whoever wanted to hear.
The great Rabbi Akiva climbed his way up from being a 40-year-old ignoramus into one of the primary Torah leaders in all of history. After 24 years of relentless study and dedication, he had amassed an incredible 24,000 students. Although the students were spread out over a vast area (From “Tifrach until Aza”) we can imagine that there were masses of students in attendance every time Rabbi Akiva said a shiur.
Then disaster struck and all his students died. Aside from the unimaginable grief of their demise, we would imagine that it must have been overly depressing for Rabbi Akiva to continue teaching.
But Rabbi Akiva was not destroyed. He gathered five students and taught them Torah. The fact that whereas previously thousands had gathered to hear and savor his every word and now he had only five students did not deter him. He wanted to teach Torah and that was all that mattered.
Often, at shul events, speakers recount the shul’s humble beginnings in a basement or an original member’s dining room. Then it moved to another larger location, and then another, until finally coming to the impressible building it currently is housed in. Rabbi Akiva was the opposite. We can imagine that to teach so many students, Rabbi Akiva must have had a big building where he said his shiurim. But when they all died, and he began again with five students they could have all fit around his dining room table.
Clearly, Rabbi Akiva was not in it for fame and glory. His only thought was to teach the word of Hashem. Although he was undoubtedly devastated by his mammoth losses, it did not deter or cripple him. Rabbi Akiva’s resolve and resilience is legendary and continues to inspire the Jewish people.
It’s hard to be just as dedicated when in private as when others are watching. But when one truly feels that it’s his duty and privilege to serve G-d, then the numbers of watching eyes, social media followers, friends and likes won’t mean a thing.