Just One Drop
Rabbi Yaacov Haber
Lag B'Omer 5765
Rebbe Akiva was forty years old when he decided he wanted to study Torah. Thus far, his life had revolved around caring for the physical needs of the world. Like our forefathers, like Moses, like so many great men, he was a shepherd. But now he decided that he wanted to make an intellectual contribution to himself first and then to the Jewish people.
But the reality of his lack of education was nagging. Where does a forty-year-old man start? He had never been trained in the utilization of his mind. How would he absorb that which scholars learn as children and is ingrained deeply in their hearts?
Then, one day walking through the field he witnessed a miracle. Not a supernatural event as did Moses when he was shepherding, but rather a very ordinary miracle. He came upon a rock. As its strength overwhelmed him, he examined the rock and noticed a cavity. "What could be strong enough to bore a hole in this rock" he asked. Then he noticed a drop of water fall upon the hole from a mountain. He understood that drop by drop, the water, soft and refreshing to the touch pierced a hole through the impenetrable stone. R. Akiva then reasoned that, if soft water can penetrate hard rock, certainly Torah, which tough as steel, can penetrate his mind.
What was the lesson of the rock? If R. Akiva was to derive that Torah should be studied a drop at a time, this would frustrate him all the more. How could he learn little by little when half his life had already passed? A more appropriate lesson would have been to witness a waterfall crush a rock, from which he would learn that an enormous quantity of Torah even at a late stage would crush the barriers of his mind
Perhaps the lesson from this was a different one. Our obligation is to start with a drop, he learned, even where it seems that the drop won't put you very far ahead. Let the drop fall and somehow a breakthrough will take place.
R. Akiva went to study Torah. He began to excel and he began to teach. Twenty-four years passed since that day at the rock, and R. Akiva became the most sought after teacher in Israel. He attracted over twenty thousand students. From one droplet.
Many reasons are given for the celebration of Lag B'Omer, the thirty-third day of the counting of the Omer. Today I want to discuss perhaps the least known reason.
The 24,000 disciples of R. Akiva died during the period of counting the Omer. R. Akiva's entire wealth, all that he had given his life for, had perished. The Talmud tells us that the closet relationship in the world is that of a rebbe [teacher of Torah or leader] and a talmid [disciple]. Imagine the grief, the despair. Who could survive witnessing such a tragedy? They all died in the very short time between Pesach and Shavuos. The plague lasted thirty-three days and on the thirty-third day they stopped dying.
The disciples who died included all those to whom he had given smicha. I should explain here that smicha [ordination, or the laying on of hands] is that which preserves the line of rabbinical authority. It was first given by God to Moses, the first rabbi, and then by Moses to Joshua, and son on, down the ages. It was the authoritative stature necessary to carry out such things as conversion or the declaration of the new month.
Now that the disciples of R. Akiva with smicha had died, R. Akiva realized that the institution of smicha was in danger of dying out. So he looked over his remaining disciples, and decided that there was only one who could be considered a candidate for ordination. That was Yehuda ben Bava, and R. Akiva gave him smicha on Lag B'Omer. (It is for this reason that many rabbonim have a custom to give their students smicha on Lag B'Omer.) That is one of the things we celebrate on that day.
To continue the story, on that day R. Akiva decided that he should train more students for smicha. So he went with five of his disciples to the south of Eretz Yisroel. These students were R. Meir, R. Yehudah, R. Shimon, R. Yose and R. Nechemia. However, before he could give them smicha, he was captured and eventually martyred by the Roman authorities.
I should also explain here the Roman rulers, realizing the importance of smicha for the continuity of Jewish tradition had decreed that anyone who gave or received smicha was liable to the death penalty, and any city in which it occurred would be destroyed.
Then R. Yehuda ben Bava went with these five students to a valley situated between two mountains, away from the cities, to continue training them for smicha. The Romans discovered what was happening, and troops came into the valley. When R. Yehuda realized that he was about to be captured, he quickly gave the five students smicha, and told them to flee. "But Rebbe," they said, "What about you?" "I am like a stone which cannot be turned," he responded, and stayed where he was so as to give the others a chance to escape. The Romans captured him and threw so many spears into him tht his body resembled a sieve (Sanhedrin 14). The others succeeded in escaping. Thus R. Yehuda ben Bava accomplished his mission.
R. Akiva at the time of this story was 92 years old (Seder Hadoros). He had just sustained the worst blow a person can endure. Great credit would have been due to R. Akiva if he simply would not have lost his faith. But, behold, R. Akiva didn't even take the day off to digest the shock. He ran to give smicha to R. Yehudah ben Bava. What good would it do? One in the face of the 24,000 lost. Where did he get the strength? The answer is he remembered the miracle of the stone. One drop more and Klal Yisroel will continue.
Today we learn Torah from the Talmudic writings handed down to us, Mishna, Sifro, Sifri, Tosefta and Seder Olam. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 86) tells us that unless named otherwise and unnamed Mishna is R. Meir, Sifro is R. Yehuda, Sifri is R. Shimon, Tosefta is R. Nechemia and Seder Olam is R. Yose. Thus it becomes clear that on Lag Bâ€™Omer, because of the heroic perseverance of one man, we are here to tell the story. The true celebration of Lag Bâ€™Omer is the celebration of the ability of a person to find new strengths to continue before even stepping out from the ashes.
A similar phenomenon happened with many of the Torah giants who escaped from Hitler and came to America and Israel in the "thirties" and "forties". They had just experienced tragedies afflicting their families and friends, their teachers and pupils.
Many people in such a situation would have taken time off to recover, tried psychotherapy, and so on. But these people, realizing the importance to Klal Yisroel of founding or transplanting yeshivas to America or Israel, ignored their personal grief and plunged into this work.
Hashem oz l'amo yiten [God gives his people strength]. An American officer told me a story that stayed with me. In 1945, he was involved in liberating the horrendous concentration camps of Nazi Europe. He went into a camp to find himself surrounded by death. A man looked up to him with gratitude. "Zei Moichel," [please forgive me for troubling you] he said "and find me a Gemara Moed Katan." Next week I have yahrzeit for my father and I promised him that each year on his yahrzeit I would make a siyum on Moed Katan." This is why we exist as a people.
The Jewish people are very affiliated with the moon. We count by it and celebrate its monthly genesis. Toward the beginning of the month at Synagogues around the world all congregants step outside for a moment to catch a glimpse of the new moon. We make a blessing and then we sing and dance. We say, "To the moon He said that I should renew itself and as a crown of splendor for those (Jews) who are destined to renew themselves like it.
Moses told the people in God's name, "Hachodesh Hazeh lochem - This is your moon, your symbol." It appeared to have vanished, there was no moon in the world. Then a day went by and there it was again. So old, but every month chodosh [new].
It is the God-given strength of the People of Israel to rise out of crises and grow again as a person, as a Jew, as a people.