Building Anew

65 years before was the holocaust — one third of our people killed.

When we left Egypt, we were led through the desert by a pillar of fire by day, and a pillar of smoke by night. When we made camp, the pillar moved to the Qodesh haQadashim in the Mishkan, the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle.

Now, a Divine statement, a very different pillar of smoke again arose from the Holy of Holies

The survivors, old and few, remembered a world long gone.

Many refused to eat meat or sing — how can we eat meat when G-d’s “table” goes empty? How can we sing after the levites and Chassidim were silenced?

Many were turned off, many couldn’t see how to be Jewish in the new world.
Others started building again.

But I’m not talking about now — I’m talking of 1875 years ago. The year was 135 CE – 65 years after the destruction of the Temple and the Sacking of Jerusalem. Aqiva lived through a Holocaust, and it cost him his faith. And then he met the right woman, saw the effects of water on the rock, and became one of the builders. As Rabbi Yehoshua (Bereishis Rabba 64:10) told the ascetics to return to their meat and their song  — life must go on.

It took him decades, but by now Rabbi Aqiva had students — 24,00 of them. An entire educational system.

Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand chavrusos of students, from Gavat to Antiperes, and all of them died in one period because they did not demonstrate respect toward each other. The world was desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our Rabbis in the south ([of Israel] and taught them: R. Meir; R. Yehuda; R. Yose; R. Shimon; and R. Elazar ben Shamoah; – and they reestablished Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: they [the 24,000 students] all died from Peisach to Atzeres (Shavuos).

- Yevamos 62b

An entire movement, stretching the length of Israel. The best and the brightest of our people. The next generation of leaders. The foundation of a new world.

We can imagine how it happened: One day, a little before Pesach, one of these students develops a small caugh. Then another and another.

And by the 2nd day of Pesach, when the omer began, they started dying. One by one, then in twos and threes.

Until all 24,000 were gone.

In just 32 days.

As Bereishis Rabba tells us: Hashem boneh olamot umacharivan. And we imitate G-d; when the world is destroyed, we build again.

I found the following in R’ Aharon Rakeffet Rothkoff’s collection of talks by R’ JB Soloveitchik that reflect his view of life, Torah and the Jewish People titled “The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik“:

12.04 Recreating the Destroyed World

Related by the Rav in his annual Yahrzeit Shiur in memory of his father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik, Yeshiva University, January 6, 1957. (Yiddish).

The Midrash relates that God created and destroyed many worlds before He allowed this world to remain in existence [Midrash Rab-bah to Genesis 3:9]. Some of the earlier worlds were even more beautiful than the present one, but the Creator eliminated them. He then went ahead and created this world, which has endured.

What are the rabbis teaching us? What does it mean that God created and destroyed worlds? After all, He could have made this world to begin with, so why did God experiment with the earlier creations?

This Midrash conveys a very important concept to us. A person must know how to continue building and creating in life, even if his previous efforts are demolished. He cannot lose hope and must not give up. He must go ahead and build again. Perhaps the new world created will not be as beautiful as the earlier one; nevertheless, he must continue to rebuild. God was able to say about His final world: “Behold, it was very good” [Genesis 1:31]. That is, that the final, permanent world is very good, even though some of the earlier ones may have been even more beautiful. They are gone, and we must maximize what we have now.

Today, we must judge the Torah world we are reconstructing after the Holocaust as “very good,” even though earlier ones may have been more beautiful. I am very proud of the Maimonides Day School in Boston. Many times I test the students on the Humash and Rashi that they are studying. I am impressed by their knowledge and inspired by their achievements. Then I ask myself why I am so excited by such small accomplishments. After all, I saw the giants of European Torah Jewry before the Holocaust. I discussed talmudic topics with my grandfather, Reb Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk. I visited with Reb Chaim Ozer Grodzinski [1863-1940] in Vilna [Rabbi Grodzinski was the author of three volumes of responsa literature entitled Ahiezer]. I debated with Reb Shimon Shkop 11860-1940; Rabbi Shkop was the leading Lithuanian rosh ha-yeshiva in that period] concerning the explanation of certain talmudic passages. I spent entire nights with Reb Baruch Ber Leibowitz of Kaminetz [1866-1939; Rabbi Leibowitz was the closest student of Reb Chaim Soloveitchik] attempting to comprehend difficult rulings in the Code of Maimonides. Why am I so impressed that American youngsters can master a little Humash with Rashi, the rudiments of Torah study?

This is the message of the re-creation of destroyed worlds. A Jew has to know how to emulate God, and, like God, to continue to create even after his former world has been eradicated. True, what I have in Boston may not be as beautiful as the European Torah world before the Holocaust. Nevertheless, it is the world we now have. We have to continue to build it and not look back. We must not be cynical, and we should direct our attention and efforts to the future. We must look ahead!

G-d builds words and destroys them, and builds them anew. And we too must turn from the ashes and build anew.

Rabbi Aqiva headed south to find whom he could from the ruins. He found 5 new students: Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai, Rabbi Yose Ben Chalafta, Rabbi Nechemiah, Rav Meir, and Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai.

All of our tradition today comes from these 5 students. These are names we find throughout the mishnah, beraisa and Tosefta. Rav Meir wrote most of the mishnas, and the project was completed by R’ Yehudah haNasi, his student. “Stam mishnah keRav Meir a plain mishnah [with no attribution] follow Rabbi Meir”. And from Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai we get the Zohar, the entire chain of mystical tradition.

What 24,000 could not do, 5 accomplished.

Why did the Beis haMiqdash, the Temple, fall? Sin’at Chinam, baseless — or perhaps better, “pointless” — hatred.

Rabbi Aqiva personally focused on this issue. “Amar Rabbi Aqiva: ‘Ve’ahava lerei’akha kamokha’ — zeh kelal gadol baTorah. Rabbi Aqiva said: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself — this is a great principle of the Torah.”

Why did Rabbi Aqiva’s students fall to an epidemic? As we saw in Yevamos, “shelo nahagu kavod zeh bazeh — they did not demonstrate respect toward each other.”

What? Did they miss their teacher’s “great principle of the Torah”?

They had respect for each other. Notice how the Talmud describes it — these were 24,000 students, they were 12,000 chavrusos; the unity was there. Notice also the gemara doesn’t speak of a lack of kavod, it says “lo nahagu — they didn’t practice” it. These are not throw-away words. The gemara is telling us that the respect was there, but there wasn’t a visible demonstration of the esteem they held for the other.

They had kavod. They didn’t express it.

A small element of the original mistake.

So tiny of a flaw over which to die.

Yet enough of a problem that they couldn’t serve as the foundation for the new.

I heard the following story from Rav Meir Levin:

Many years earlier in Shanghai. Reb Leib was engaged by the Amshinover Rebbe to teach one of his children…. the Rebbe discussed with Reb Leib the concept that in spiritual growth there are two approaches: one can take  Derech HaNamuch and Derech haGevoah. The first approach is to work from the bottom up, painstakingly one step at a time. The second allows a person to jump many levels a t a time.

After Shabbos, Reb Leib related this to the Mashgiach who, soon after, asked his young talmid to accompany him to the Sassoon Building. The Sassoon building was a beautiful edifice, a skyscraper that was built on one of the most prime pieces of real estate in downtown Shanghai. But the building was sinking into the ground! It seems that many years earlier this plot of land had been the garbage dump and someone has purchased it, covered it and as Shanghai grew in size, sold it a prime property. Mr. Sassoon bought the tract and -unsuspecting- built one of the most beautiful buildings in the city on it. The Mashgiach’s point was well understood: outwardly, one’s spiritual accomplishments can appear great and exalted, but if he doesn’t clean out the garbage – if a solid foundation is not developed one step at the time – then eventually it will collapse.

– Reb Chatzkel: Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein, Guardian of Torah and Mussar, Artscroll, p. 338

The next generation of leaders could not have a flaw in how they related to each other. Without precision in the foundation, the building won’t stand.

Today again the survivors of the Holocaust who were born in the old world and could teach it to use are fewer and fewer. And yet we must have the audacity to try to revive part of that world. The Torah and passion in service of Hashem that we can’t seem to recapture in the new world. Observance and education, yes. In greater numbers than our pre-war ancestors. But (as R’ Soloveitchik would put it), the “erev Shabbos Jew” who spends his Friday in eager anticipation of Shabbos? That we are far less successful in producing.

What lessons can we take from the story of Rabbi Aqiva’s students?

1- “Every generation in which the Beis haMiqdash was not rebuilt, it is as though it was destroyed.” We must not only love each other latently, expressed in times of tragedy, but a daily practice of nahagu kavod zeh bazeh – demonstrating our respect for other Jews even when we’re in bitter disagreement with them. Respect, and stated respect.

Frankly, of the items in this list, I think this is not our biggest shortcoming.

2- Taharah - Purity. If we are to building something lasting, we must pay attention to the perfection of its foundations. A slight deviation from the vertical at the beginning will grow to a large error as the structure grows taller.

3- Simchah uBitachon – Happiness and Trust

Why, of all the tannaim of the era, it fell to Rabbi Aqiva to rebuild the world of Torah?

It happened that Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azarya, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva were walking along the road and heard the sound of the Roman masses from Pelitus, one hundred and twenty mil away. They began crying, but Rabbi Akiva laughed.

They asked him, “Why do you laugh?” He said to them, “And you, why do you cry?”

They said to him, “These pagans, who bow to images and bring offerings to idolatry, dwell in security and tranquility, whereas we — the house [that is] the footstool of our God has been burned by fire. Shall we not cry?”

He said to them, “It is for that reason that I laugh. If this is how it is for those who violate His will, then all the more so for those who perform His will!

One time, they were ascending to Jerusalem. When they reached Har HaTzofim [the first point from which one can see the Temple Mount] they rent their garments. When they reached the Har HaBayis, they saw a fox leaving the [site of] the qodesh ha-qodashim [the innermost sanctum of the Temple]. They began crying, but Rabbi Akiva laughed.

They said to him, “Why do you laugh?” He responded, “Why do you cry?”

They said to him, “The site about which it is written: ‘The foreigner who approaches shall be put to death’ (Bamidbar 1) — now foxes walk there, and we shall not cry?”

He said to them, “Therefore I laugh. For it is written, ‘I called upon reliable witnesses — Uriyah the Kohen, and Zechariah ben Yevarecheihu’ (Yishayahu 8:2). What does Uriyah have to do with

Zechariah — Uriyah [lived] during the First Temple [period], whereas Zechariah [lived] during the Second Temple [era]! Rather, the verse hinges the prophecy of Zechariah on the prophecy of Uriyah. In [a prophecy of] Uriyah it is written, ‘Therefore, because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field,’ (Mikhah 3) and in [a prophecy of] Zechariah it is written, ‘There shall yet be old men and women in the squares of Jerusalem.’ (Zechariah 7) So long as Uriyah’s prophecy was unfulfilled, I feared lest Zechariah’s prophecy will not be fulfilled. Now that Uriyah’s prophecy has been fulfilled, it is certain that Zechariah’s prophecy will be fulfilled.”

They said to him: “Akiva, you have consoled us; Akiva, you have consoled us.”

- Makkos 24a-25b

When Rabbi Eliezer became ill, his students went to visit him. He said to them, “There is great anger in the world” [referring to Hashem's giving power to the Romans]. They started to cry, except Rabbi Akiva who laughed. They said to him, “Why do you laugh?” He answered them, “And why do you cry?” They said to him, “Is it possible that one sees the scroll of the Torah in pain, and we do not weep?”

He responded, “It is for that reason that I laughed. As long as I saw my rebbe, that his wine did not turn sour, his flax did not get smitten, his oil did not spoil, and honey did not crystallize, I could say that perhaps ch”v rebbe had received his world [now, not in the world-to-come]. But now that I see that rebbe suffers, I am happy.” [Rabbi Eliezer] said to [Rabbi Akiva], “Did I neglect any matter of the Torah [for which I now suffer]?” [Rabbi Akiva] said to him, “Our rebbe, you taught us, ‘For there is no righteous man on earth who does good without sinning.’ (Koheles 7:20)”

-Sanhedrin 101a

Rabbi Aqiva was able to see the seed of the new laying among the remains of the old. Where the others only saw tragedy, Rabbi Aqiva was able to find the hopeful beginnings of a new future.

As Rabbi Soloveitchik said, we must not get so busy mourning the past that we forget to look hopefully at the future.

4- Ometz – Persistance

When Moshe died, a world too ended. We are told 3,000 laws were forgotten, and had to be reestablished by Osniel ben Qenaz. But Hashem destroys worlds only to build new ones. Without Moshe, Hashem next appoints Yehoshua – to rebuild.

Hashem’s charge to Yehoshua at the beginning of the book:

ו: חֲזַ֖ק וֶֽאֱמָ֑ץ כִּ֣י אַתָּ֗ה תַּנְחִיל֙ אֶת־הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה אֶת־הָאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־נִשְׁבַּ֥עְתִּי לַֽאֲבוֹתָ֖ם לָתֵ֥ת לָהֶֽם׃

6 Be strong and of good courage; for you will cause this nation to inherit the land which I swore to their fathers to give them.

ז רַק֩ חֲזַ֨ק וֶֽאֱמַ֜ץ מְאֹ֗ד לִשְׁמֹ֤ר לַֽעֲשׂוֹת֙ כְּכָל־הַתּוֹרָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר צִוְּךָ֙ מֹשֶׁ֣ה עַבְדִּ֔י אַל־תָּס֥וּר מִמֶּ֖נּוּ יָמִ֣ין וּשְׂמֹ֑אול לְמַ֣עַן תַּשְׂכִּ֔יל בְּכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר תֵּלֵֽךְ׃

7 Only be strong and very courageous, to observe to do according to all of the Torah which Moshe My servant commanded you; do not veer from it to the right nor to the left, so that you would achieve wherever you go.

ח לֹֽא־יָמ֡וּשׁ סֵפֶר֩ הַתּוֹרָ֨ה הַזֶּ֜ה מִפִּ֗יךָ וְהָגִ֤יתָ בּוֹ֙ יוֹמָ֣ם וָלַ֔יְלָה לְמַ֨עַן֙ תִּשְׁמֹ֣ר לַֽעֲשׂ֔וֹת כְּכָל־הַכָּת֖וּב בּ֑וֹ כִּי־אָ֛ז תַּצְלִ֥יחַ אֶת־דְּרָכֶ֖ךָ וְאָ֥ז תַּשְׂכִּֽיל׃

8 This book of the Torah shall not depart from your mouth, but you will contemplate it day and night, so that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will succeed in your ways, and then you will achieve.

ט הֲל֤וֹא צִוִּיתִ֨יךָ֙ חֲזַ֣ק וֶֽאֱמָ֔ץ אַֽל־תַּעֲרֹ֖ץ וְאַל־תֵּחָ֑ת כִּ֤י עִמְּךָ֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בְּכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר תֵּלֵֽךְ׃  {פ}

9 Have not I commanded you to be strong and of good courage? Do not be afraid and not not get discouraged; for Hashem your G-d is with you wherever you go. {P}

Chazaq ve’ematz” has a clear central role in Yehoshua’s success at his mission — Hashem uses the expression three times in His berakhah when Yehoshua takes leadership.

So, what do the words mean?

I think we can take a lead from the parallelism in pasuq 9: “חֲזַק וֶאֱמָץ, אַל-תַּעֲרֹץ וְאַל-תֵּחָת – be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid and not not get discouraged…” Fear is something we experience when dealing with the unknown, the new. Discouragement sets in after someone tries an activity, and success is evading them. The verse would therefore suggest that chizuq is the strength to get something started whereas ometz is the ability to stick with it after the newness and the initial excitement fade. (For more on this middah, and its identification with one of the Mesilas Yesharim’s subtypes of Zerizus, see here.)

Rabbi Aqiva did not give up with the loss of 24,000 students. He didn’t look hopelessly at the mere five who gathered around him. He did not get discouraged. Ometz.

Lag baOmer marks the end of mourning the tragic premature loss of 24,000 students, and the celebration of a complete and productive life of Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai. Between Rabbi Aqiva’s failed attempt to rebuild the world; and his successful one. What can be accomplished with Kavod, Taharah, Bitachon and Ometz.

We can rebuild a world anew.

And your thoughts...?