Lag B'Omer: Taking On Rabbi Akiva's 'Love Your Neighbor As Yourself'
Illustration (Image Credit: Wix)
“If a rock, though extremely hard, can be hollowed out by water, how much more so should it be possible for The Light (Torah), which is compared to water, to change my heart. I will begin to study it, and try to become a scholar of The Light.”
Rabbi Akiva, Avot deRabi Natan 6:2
"Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." Rabbi Akiva says: This is the great principal of the Torah.
Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students… and they all died (the deaths stopped on Lag B’Omer), because they did not treat each other with respect. And the world was desolate of Torah until Rabbi Akiva… taught his Torah to…. Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yosei, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (whose hilula is celebrated on Lag B'Omer), and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua...
Is it possible? How can we possibly emulate one of the greatest personalities in our nation's history? The exaltedness with which Rabbi Akiva is revered seems like an unapproachable dimension. Is there any point in us lesser mortals even trying to ascend to such an illustrious height when even the first rung of the ladder seems beyond our reach?
The heat was beating down mercilessly on the family that was walking down from the mountain in Tiberias where they had just visited the resting place of Rabbi Akiva (50-135 CE), the distinguished Tanna (teacher/scholar) of the Mishna. Even walking down the hill was a formidable challenge and every step seemed to dim the euphoric mindset that the visit has engendered. The absence of any traffic on the main road seemed to underscore that the oppressiveness of the heat was severe enough to keep everyone at home. You could describe the family's trudge down the hill as crawling, even though they stood on their feet.
Suddenly, the silence and monotony of their arduous trek was interrupted by a car speeding by them. The driver, who had passed them by, backed up and stopped to talk to them. He urged them all to jump into his car and he would drive them down the hill. No knight in shining armor was as unexpected or as welcome as this nondescript automobile.
As the driver was negotiating the downhill drive, he seemed to be talking more to himself then to his passengers. "I have just come from the resting place of Rabbi Akiva," he said. "Rabbi Akiva taught us that we should love our fellow man as we love ourselves. It's not enough to think that way. Here I have a chance to put it into practice!"
When they reached the bottom of the hill, the driver's good spirits were uplifted even further by a buoyant surge of energy and he asked them where they were headed to. Without a moment's hesitation, the taxi driver took his passengers to the central bus station where they needed to go. The effusive thanks that family gave the driver was accompanied by their insistence that they pay him for the ride. The driver adamantly refused any payment. During his ride down the hill he had stopped being a taxi driver and had changed his persona into an emissary of Rabbi Akiva.
Truly, why should the memory of a taxi ride resonate decades later if it was just a common, seemingly unremarkable occurrence? It is remembered because it wasn't just another excursion. In the apparently normal drive downhill the driver had transformed the ride into an irradiant uphill connection to eternity.
The passengers could find and distinguish this memory from all the clutter that fills one’s days and years because the clarity of their souls perceived this drive as a transformative excursion. If everyday people could remember, certainly our Creator will not forget this driver’s inspired deed and will etch it indelibly in his credit rating as a "stepping stone to eternity."
So when you leave the house, you don't need to be completely inundated with all that needs to be done. Even when one is immersed in the demands of one's daily tasks, one can keep their eyes open. Possibly we cannot all reach the brightly shining exalted level of Rabbi Akiva. But who can tell how far we can go by even taking our own baby-steps in the right direction?
Yes, it is possible. We can emulate and connect to Rabbi Akiva. A smile, a greeting, walking just a bit out of our way for a friend or for a complete stranger - the seemingly unremarkable effort we make in the right direction can truly be a stepping stone to eternity.
Spiritual entities are not separated by time or space; centuries and planets assume the status of inconsequential entities. Our tradition teaches that one who connects spiritually to his "teacher" — no matter how far removed they are — is considered his son and spiritual heir. When one relates teachings in the name of the one who originally taught them — even a master one has never "met" — the connection joins the learner to the teacher and merits that his "lips rustle in the grave," i.e., that he is considered still alive as if he is teaching Torah (Ein Yaakov Yevamot 10:4).
If you can connect to Rabbi Akiva and aspire to emulate his deeds, you will truly be a legitimate heir to the grandest throne.
Darla Chavkin Stone's features have appeared in magazines, news publications, and research journals in the U.S., England, Israel, and Mexico and on the web. She is the editor of "Explorations In Soular Space."