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Piles of Potential

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The Gemara in Yevamot (62b) tells us that Rebbe Akiva lost 24,000 of his students to a devastating plague–his entire academy. The Jewish nation mourns the loss of these students to this day. Yet, after this tragedy, Rebbe Akiva still set out to teach Torah, garnering a few more students. These students proved to be the next generation of the Torah tradition. What was it about Rebbe Akiva that enabled him to persevere even after losing so much?

Rebbe Akiva must have profoundly loved every student he had. After all, he was the man whose mantra was, “Love your fellow as you love yourself.” We cannot relate to the suffering that he would have felt when thousands of them died in such a short period of time. However, he understood that all hope was not lost. on the contrary, the Torah still needed to be transmitted to a new generation! Thus, he resiliently searched for more students to share it with. Rebbe Akiva understood his own potential and the potential of the nation despite the loss that he experienced.

What occurs on Lag BaOmer can serve as a parable for this concept. In advance of that night, people all over the world scour their neighborhoods for wood. This wood is used to make bonfires, celebrating the fact that Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai (one of Rebbe Akiva’s five students in his old age) brought Kabbalah into the world. Young children in Eretz Yisrael are known for using not just tree branches, but even broken desk pieces and dilapidated furniture. They anticipate building towering piles of wood, leading to a blitz of fire.

At first glance, the objects thrown into the pile seem worthless–as good as garbage. Upon further examination, though, the opposite proves to be true. A bonfire shows us that physical things that seem useless have amazing spiritual potential inside. This is an idea that we can learn from Rebbe Akiva: If a few busted chair legs have the potential to create a towering inferno of spiritual expression, how much more can a human being accomplish (no matter what state he is in)?

Lag BaOmer is a time to remember that we are all pure potential. We are waiting to be set ablaze by our own unique strengths and talents. No matter what weaknesses we think that we have, we still have a choice. Will we see ourselves as broken desks without purpose or a fiery force for greatness?

We do not know if Rebbe Akiva saw himself as responsible for the fate of his students. Still, he took everything that he had left and put it into rebuilding his academy from the ground up. Out of the darkness of tragedy, he created more spiritual potential and used it to illuminate the entire world.

We should merit to be as resilient as Rebbe Akiva and see the potential in ourselves that lies dormant during dark times.

[This piece can also be found on pages 167-168 of my book, Legacy of Light: Revealing the Torah’s Eternal Relevance. It is an honor and a pleasure to share it on TOI as well.]

About the Author
Bob Barocas is the author of Legacy of Light: Revealing the Torah's Eternal Relevance, a mentor and speaker for RJX/Rutgers MEOR, a contributing writer for Chabad.org, the owner of RDB SEO (a results-driven digital marketing agency), and a lawyer in New Jersey. Bob strives to unearth deeply inspiring and life-altering messages in everything he learns and passionately share them with others.
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