Sunday, May 6, 2012
י"ד אייר תשע"ב
Lag BaOmer - ל"ג בעומר
Rabbi Akiva's wisdom and his national vision
On Lag BaOmer – the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer – we celebrate the rebellion of the Jewish People which began in the year 132 c.e. and led the Children of Israel to a short but glorious 3-year period of independence from the oppressive Roman Empire. Jews in those times communicated with each other through hilltop signal fires. Today, Israelis light thousands of bonfires everywhere in the country to honor the spirit of freedom of those Jews who began guerrilla warfare against the Romans who sought to eradicate Judaism.
This revolt – not a merely military action - was physically led by Shimon Bar Kochvah and spiritually guided by Rabbi Akiva, the greatest Sage of that era, and perhaps the most important scholar of the Mishnah.
What was the greatness of Rabbi Akiva? It was not just his academic wisdom, or his extraordinary ability to convey Jewish principles. Rabbi Akiva is a giant of Jewish spirituality because he understood and conveyed to his own and future generations what the pillars of a healthy society and a developed nation should be:
- A well-established and universally known legal system: by Akiva's time, the Elders of Israel (Jazal) had developed an amazingly extensive jurisprudence in the form of laws (halachot) based on Torah precepts scattered through countless hours of Rabbinic discussion. Akiva understood that a people, a nation, needs a clear legal system accessible to all. He compiled, for the first time, a great encyclopedia of Jewish law - the Mishnah, logically divided and organized according to topics in 6 s'darim (orders), each containing full-length books. Thus, Rabbi Akiva established the basis of the whole Jewish legal system, bringing the entire Jewish people closer to the principles of the Jewish nation, popularizing Judaism in a way that opens opportunities for all, neither demanding nor excluding learned erudition.
- A national spiritual authority, and freedom on the personal level: Rabbi Akiva was possibly the most beloved spiritual leader of the Jewish people of his time. Our tradition describes the number of his students and followers in 'tens of thousands'. However, Rabbi Akiva understood that at the end, in order to achieve spiritual national union, it was essential to have one authority on spiritual matters. It was then that he openly and willingly linked himself to Raban Gamliel II, and supported him as the spiritual authority for the entire Jewish people. This applied only to the public sphere, since, in the private one, Rabbi Akiva acted differently to some of Raban Gamliel's decisions; such dissent by an individual scholar also showed his overall acceptance and commitment to the nation under one shared vision.
- National independence: Rabbi Akiva supported Bar Kochbah's revolt, seeing in the war waged by the Jewish deliverer both the divine plan of redemption and a real chance to regain the national independence lost under the Roman yoke (with the destruction of the Second Temple, in 70 c.e.). Rabbi Akiva believed in Jewish nation-building to provide the ideal context for complete Jewish life. He understood that government of the Jewish people should be in the hands of their own leaders, and that independence is fully achieved through independent establishment of all the institutions that characterize a nation, especially Executive power supported by the strength and protection of a national army when necessary.
Rabbi Akiva was a great leader because he knew how to link the central themes of our being and doing as a people: law and justice; philosophy and action; freedom and dissent; the individual and the Nation. He was a true spiritual leader because his horizon was always the present and the future welfare of the people of Israel, supporting and consoling them in their hours of sorrow, dreaming of a better future when national life could be achieved by our people. Late, too late in his time, our national life is recovered and restored: we are blessed in the joy of living in an era of reconstruction, almost as if we had never lost our National Home.
When children and young people in Israel light the bonfires of freedom so deeply longed for but so briefly achieved by Bar Kochba, they multiply Bar Kochbah's light and those of other brave liberators who aspired to achieve our freedom. They multiply Rabbi Akiva's message of life, that great visionary of the Jewish nation who believed that "love thy neighbor as thyself" is the supreme rule of the Torah.
May our Lag BaOmer fires light the glory of our present and our promising future, in our restored independence and freedom as a nation.
Lag BaOmer Sameach!!!
RABBI CARLOS A. TAPIERO
Deputy Director-General & Director of Education
Maccabi World Union
 His real name was Shimon bar Kosiva
 Collection of 63 volumes of Jewish Oral Tradition - exegetical body of Jewish Law, which collects and consolidates Jewish oral tradition developed over centuries since the time of writing the Torah and up to the time of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, towards the end of the 2nd Century c.e.
 The final version of the Mishnah was sealed by Rabbi Judah HaNassi ("the Prince"), early third century c.e.
 Vaikrah (Leviticus) XIX, 18.