When Moshe ascended to heaven, he saw Hakadosh Baruch Hu tying crowns to the letters of the Torah. He said, “Ribbono Shel Olam, who is delaying You?” He said to Moshe, “There is one man who will live after many generations, Akiva ben Yosef is his name, and he will deduce heaps of halachot from each and every point” (Menachot 29b).
Of the Ten Martyrs mentioned in the medieval piyyut Eleh Ezkerah, the liturgical poem we recite during Mussaf on Yom Kippur, none is as well-known as Rabi Akiva, the Sage who saw both the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash and the fall of Beitar and yet remained optimistic about the future of Torah and the Jewish People.
Rabi Akiva was neither born into greatness nor crowned as a young man with the title illui (genius). In fact, he was born into a family of converts and could barely distinguish alef from bet for the first forty years of his life. The great turning point occurred when he married Rachel, the daughter of the wealthy Kalba Savua, who immediately disinherited his daughter for marrying an ignorant shepherd. Although the newlyweds were so poor that they were forced to sleep upon straw, Rachel presented her husband with a gift more precious than gold: a belief that he could succeed and even grow great in Torah.
Avot d’Rabbi Natan 6 describes what happened next:
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