We are all inspired by stories of people who rise up from poverty and poor living conditions to do something really magnificent in this world. Rabbi Akiva was one of those people, and he remains a prominent and leading authority of Jewish life.
Some believe that Rabbi Akiva was the son of a convert and, therefore, did not receive a Jewish education when he was growing up. He was a shepherd and met and married a woman named Rachel, who was the daughter of a very wealthy man. Rachel married Rabbi Akiva on the condition that he would study Torah.
Rabbi Akiva did not begin learning until he was in his 40’s. He received additional inspiration to learn when he observed a hole in a rock that had been formed by the perseverance of dripping water. He decided that if water was capable of forming holes in rock, then he could go and learn.
For twelve years, Rabbi Akiva was gone from home. When neighbors questioned (and, perhaps, challenged) Rachel about Rabbi Akiva’s absence, she responded that she would be happy if he went to study for another twelve years. And, that is exactly what he did.
When he came back the second time, Rabbi Akiva led a group of over 20,000 students. He was a renowned scholar and one of the founding Rabbis of Rabbinic Judaism. Rabbi Akiva was one of the central contributors to the Mishnah, the written form of the oral Torah, and the Midrash Halakha, a Rabbinic method of Torah study.
Today, the first phase of the Counting of the Omer is connected to Rabbi Akiva. His students died tragically from a plague that occurred around the time of the Bar Kochba revolt. It is said that they died from a lack of unity amongst each other. Perhaps, it is a message for today exclaiming that we are Klal Yisrael (all Israel), no matter how our faith is expressed.
Though not a globally accepted belief, Rabbi Akiva believed that Simon bar Kohba – leader of the Bar Kohba Revolt - was the Messiah. Rabbi Akiva was captured by the Romans for practicing and teaching Judaism and was put to death. During his torture, he recited the first paragraph of the Shema: “You shall love Ad*nai your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children and you shall speak of them when you are sitting at home and when you go on a journey, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be jewels between your eyes. You shall inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your guests.”
The work and life of Rabbi Akiva continue to influence us today. His life history is one to take inspiration from. His passion, his wisdom, and the love and honor he felt for his wife remain models of esteemed living. It is understandable why Rabbi Akiva is known as the Head of All Sages.