Yesterday, I took a trip to Yerushaliyim. There are a few issues my wife and I needed to clarify in life, so we decided that it would be best to see two rabbeim. One rav happens to be the rav I usually go to, and one is somebody whom I respect greatly, and I wanted to hear his opinion. Plus, the trip would give me the opportunity to catch up on some sleep and for my wife to have me buy some things that we can’t get here. A win-win situation.
After the meeting with the first rav, I received a call from my rav apologizing that he will not be able to meet me. Something came up and he had to leave shortly. Fine. I call my wife and tell her about the change of plans and that I’ll simply head over to the bus station and catch the next bus home. Instead, she suggests that I take the time to visit my old yeshiva and see the rabbeim there. After arriving, I spot the Mosghiach (the spiritual advisor) of the yeshiva, who has also been serving as the unofficial head of the yeshiva, since the Rosh Yeshiva passed away several years ago. He sees me and comes to greet me, and I grab him and tell him (not really asked) that I wished to speak to him. Anybody from the yeshiva knows that it’s hard to actually get him to sit and talk with you. His opinion is sought by many, not only from in the yeshiva, but from around the world, and he has a lot on his plate. But, “somehow”, I got around an hour and a half with him. A small miracle, to say the least. We discussed the issues going on, and I got his suggestions and trademarked stories. But there was one interesting insight he gave me that I wanted to share. It has nothing to do with this week’s parsha, but it really stuck with me.
He asked, what was the big deal about Rebbe Akiva? We say that he did tshuvah at the age of 40, and started to learn Torah with young children, and then became one of the pillars of the Jewish nation. Is that really it? He sat down with a bunch of nine-year-olds and started from there? No, that couldn’t be THE greatness of Rebbe Akiva. That, at the age of forty, he turned around his life? No . . . others have done that as well.
He continued and explained that he has seen that when people (and he was citing specific people who have graduated from top-notch universities and are very well off at a very young age), who become frum at 26, 27, or 28, and sit down and begin to learn, they are lacking a certain fire in their learning. Do they have a will? Absolutely. In fact, these particular people would return to the States, become strong in their beliefs, raise good families, and learn every day. However, they would still never have this “fire” within them in their learning. An 18-year-old yeshiva boy with half of this guy’s IQ could run circles around him in Gemara. Why is this? Because, even at the age of 27, he’s already an "old man." He physically does not have the same powers as the 18-year-old. He continued with some proofs and concluded that the greatness of Rebbe Akiva lies in the fact that at the age of 40, he was able to learn with the fire of an 18-year-old. THAT is a huge challenge which he was able to overcome. He didn’t know it, but he gave me a little encouragement with that, since I started learning at 27 and haven’t accomplished half of what I wanted to.
Of course, with this, one can become depressed if he thinks, how can I accomplish if I don’t have any fire? But, I listened to a talk this morning that he gave a few years ago. In it, he told over a story of a boy in yeshiva who gave into depression for not accomplishing what he wanted to accomplish, and not having the "head" for learning that he was hoping to have, and not being on the spiritual level that he was hoping to be on. In the end, he was literally about to kill himself. A certain person (it became clear, it was the Moshgiach himself) was able to keep this boy from jumping out the window, and took him to see the Steipler Gaon in Bnei Brak. The Steipler told this boy, and the Moshgiach was witness to this, that he was willing to take a vow (something not to be taken lightly) that when he (the boy) sits down and learns, with all his troubles and all his lack of "fire," Hashem has more simcha than He has when the he (the Steipler) sits and learns. All the books that the Steipler wrote get pushed to the side, and all of His attention and love is directed to this boy. Because, despite everything that is going against him, he is making a greater Kiddush Hashem. This is how the learning of a simple person compares to the learning of one of the generations of leading sages. Amazing, no?
So, we see two things from here. We see the greatness of Rebbe Akiva in a light that we never saw before. But, we also see the greatness in each one of us that we might have never seen before.
Have a wonderful Shabbos!