The holiday of optimism

Friday, 12 May, 2017 - 7:05 am


Dear Friends,

Rabbi Akiva says: If [a person] learned Torah in one’s youth, he should learn Torah in his old age. If he had students in his youth, he will have students in his old age” (Yevamot 62b). This is the Gemara’s introduction to the story of the death of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students. In other words, the Gemara brings Rabbi Akiva’s saying and then tells of how he indeed did as he said. It is not simple to lose all of one’s disciples, a loss that includes all the Torah that he taught and passed on. How can we expect him to have the strength to start afresh? But that is exactly what Rabbi Akiva did: “And the world was a wasteland (after the death of the disciples) until Rabbi Akiva came to our Sages in the south and taught them – Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehudah, and Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua and they are those who set up Torah [learning].”

A person who had needed Madison Square Garden in order to give a class to 24,000 students, was instead sitting in some “Cheder Sheni” in a neighborhood shul and learning everything from the beginning with all of five disciples. And let us not forget, by the way, that it was forbidden to learn Torah at the time, and, indeed, Rabbi Akiva was arrested for this “crime” and murdered brutally. I don’t ask where Rabbi Akiva had the strength, the power and the courage to do all this, for this is the same Rabbi Akiva who started learning to read when he was forty years old already. He had a rich record of going against conventions and doing the undoable.

It is not surprising that he actually succeeded with those five and renewed the learning of the Torah!

He was successful because he was an incurable optimist. He always saw the good that was a few steps ahead (he laughed when he saw a fox come out of the destroyed Holy of Holies, and expressed this in other incidents as well).

It is interesting that his close disciple, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, inherited from him this positive viewpoint. The Gemara in tractate Shabbat 132b says: “Our Rabbis said: when our Rabbis came to Kerem BeYavneh, they said, ‘the Torah will be forgotten from the Jewish People… Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai says: G-d forbid that the Torah should be forgotten from the Jewish People.”

The situation in the land of Israel was not easy. The sages were concerned for the future of the Torah; they were afraid it would be forgotten, but Rabbi Akiva’s closest disciple said decisively: No chance of that happening. It will not be forgotten.

Lag Ba’Omer is the holiday of our most optimistic sages. Lag Ba’Omer is the holiday of optimism. And this is the source of the endless joy attached to it. Whoever isn’t optimistic probably doesn’t celebrate it, or else he is forced to be optimistic for at least one day.


Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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