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Starting From Scratch At 70(Excerpt from "Chizuk!")
During the Sefira period we mourn over the deaths of the 24,000 talmidim of R. Akiva. The gemara (Yevamos 62b) discusses the incident:
Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples … and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yosi, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: "All of them died between Passover and Shavuos". Rabbi Chama ben Abba, or some say, Rabbi Chiya ben Abin said: "All of them died a cruel death." What was it? Rabbi Nahman replied: "Croup."
Lag b'Omer, in contrast, is a sudden burst of elation in total contrast to the solemnness of this time. The Gra(1) writes that on Lag b'Omer the plague ended and the talmidim ceased to die. The Mashgiach, Rav Zeidel Epstein, zt"l, comments(2) that there is a very important lesson to be understood from the biography of R. Akiva. At the age of forty, he started from scratch and labored twenty-four years, managing to become one of the greatest Torah scholars of his day. He amassed 24,000 talmidim. Suddenly, he lost them all in the short span of just over a month. Here was the greatest Rosh Yeshiva of the generation. He had been surrounded by crowds of the best Talmudic scholars of the time. He had spent the major portion of his life building up the largest and most renowned yeshiva in the world. And suddenly, he was thrown into solitude and loneliness.
He had started learning at the age of 40 and had spent 24 years amassing his talmidim and building his great Yeshiva. So he was probably over seventy by this time. How terrible a tragedy this was for a man of his age, to endure such a misfortune and start anew - opening a new yeshiva with only five talmidim. To any ordinary person it would have been an overwhelming task.
But R. Akiva didn't despair. He started all over again! And in doing so, he succeeded in saving Torah in Klal Yisroel. The whole Talmud we have, our sole remnant of the Oral Tradition, is due almost entirely to those five new talmidim. This is a brilliant image of how important it is not to despair. One must fight his impulses, fight his situation, and trust in Hashem Yisborach that He will send him the Geula.
(3)In 1923, the Chofetz Chaim zt"l traveled to Vienna to participate in the Agudas Yisroel convention, and he spent some time together with R' Avraham Mordechai Alter zt"l, the Gerrer Rebbe. In the course of their discussion, the Chofetz Chaim cited the verse from that week's parsha (Devorim 13:5):אחרי ה' אלקיכם תלכו ואתו תיראו ואת מצותיו תשמרו ובקלו תשמעו ואתו תעבדו ובו תדבקון:
"Acharei [literally, 'after'] Hashem, your God, shall you follow and Him shall you fear; His commandments shall you observe and to His voice shall you hearken; Him shall you serve and to Him shall you cleave." The Chofetz Chaim commented:
"Our Sages observe that the Torah uses two words for 'after' - 'Acharei,' which means 'long after' (or 'far away') and 'achar,' which means 'soon after' (or 'close'). Why does our verse use 'acharei,' implying that one should follow Hashem from a distance? In fact, one should become as close to God as possible!" He explained: Sometimes a person becomes depressed, and he feels that he is standing on the brink of a cliff as far from God as can be. He is confident that Hashem will not help him at this moment. One should know that such feelings are the work of the yetzer hora. Hashem is a Jew's "Father" at all times, and He accepts His children when they return to Him and saves them from all troubles. Even when one is "acharei," "far away," he should not despair of following Hashem. This is the meaning of the words in the High Holiday prayers, "Fortunate is the man who will not forget You, and the human being who will find strength in You."
The Gerrer Rebbe responded: "Now I will try to interpret this verse in the manner of the Chassidim. Specifically when a person feels distant from Hashem, that is when he can best follow Hashem, as it is written in Tehilim: 'God is close to the broken-hearted'."
It was near the end of his life and the Chofetz Chaim was in a summer cottage near Radin. He was heart-broken over the persecutions of Jews in Russia. He saw their situation as the severing of an entire limb of the Jewish body from its life-sources of Torah and mitzvos. "There is only one real hope," he said - "Moshiach must come soon. The Final Redemption must come sooner or later, but it is up to us to hasten its arrival. We must demonstrate our overpowering desire for Moshiach. How many of us religious Jews who say 'Ani Maamin' every day truly long for his coming? Why don't we cry out to Hashem to help us? This is no time for silence!
"Even in the Egyptian exile the Torah says that only when B'nei Yisrael cried out for help - then did their outcry go up to Hashem. We must do the same now! 1 must go to Vilna to Reb Chaim Ozer - without him nothing can be done!"
His family and students were aghast. He was over ninety years old and he could scarcely leave his armchair for the length of a day. He might not survive the difficult trip to Vilna. They pleaded with him to abandon his plan, but he would not be dissuaded. The goal was worthy of even mesiras nefesh. They told him that Reb Chaim Ozer was a man of halachah and action; such ideas as the Chofetz Chaim's were out of his domain. He smiled as if to say, What do you know of Reb Chaim Ozer?
To his deep regret, the journey to Reb Chaim Ozer never took place. Had they met, who knows?
Wishing everyone a Gut Shabbos!
(1) See Mishneh Berura 493:8 and Sha'ar Hatzion 10
(2) See Ha'aros by Moreinu Harav Zeidel Epstein, zt"l, vol. IV, p. 154.
(3)Otzrosaihem Shel Tzaddikim.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network