Spanning the Ages

Rabbi Wagensberg
Parshas Toldos
Spanning the Ages

Chida (Dvash L'fi, 70:29) cites the Arizal (Sefer Hagilgulim) who says that the soul of Rebbi Akiva was buried in the heel of Eisav. Rebbi Akiva had gone into Eisav in order to reach out to him in an attempt to lift him spiritually. Rebbi Akiva was prepared to go to the lowest of places, represented by the heel, the lowest part of the body, in order to reach out to those who have drifted to the furthest of places. Rebbi Akiva wanted to bring him closer to Hashem.

However, Ya'akov was concerned that Rebbi Akiva might get stuck in Eisav. What if Rebbi Akiva's plan backfired? What if Eisav winds up having a bigger impact on Rebbi Akiva than Rebbi Akiva has on Eisav? Then, Rebbi Akiva would be imprisoned in Eisav's forever.

Therefore, Ya'akov wanted to rescue Rebbi Akiva's soul from the clutches of Eisav. This is why Ya'akov grabbed Eisav's heel. It was in order to extract the soul of Rebbi Akiva from there.

This fits into another Arizal (Likkutei Torah, Parshas Vayechi, divrei Hamaschil "Vayafozu") which says that the soul of Rebbi Akiva was actually a spark which had shot off of the soul of Ya'akov Avinu. This connection between Ya'akov Avinu and Rebbi Akiva is hinted to in a verse.

When Ya'akov blessed Yosef, he said, "From the hands of Avir Ya'akov (the mighty power of Ya'akov), from there he shepherded the stone of Israel" (Vayechi 49:24). If we take the Hebrew words "Avir Ya'akov" and unscramble its letters and put them back together again, it spells "Rebbi Akiva." This teaches us that the "mighty power" of Ya'akov was going to be the Great Rebbi Akiva who was a gilgul (reincarnation) of Ya'akov.

There is another hint which connects these two personalities. If we take the name "Akiva" and rearrange its letters, it spells, "Ya'akov" with an extra letter "Aleph", which stands for "Avinu." (Arizal, ibid).

Ya'akov's rescuing of Rebbi Akiva's soul takes on new meaning. Ya'akov was attempting to rescue a piece of himself from getting caught in the clutches of Eisav. (See Kiddushin, chap. 1, "Ha-isha Niknis", pg. 2b).

The Arizal continues by saying that since Rebbi Akiva was a gilgul of Ya'akov, they led parallel lives. Ya'akov shepherded his father-in-law's flocks, and Rebbi Akiva shepherded his father-in-law's flocks. Ya'akov married two women, Rochel and Leah. Rebbi Akiva also married two women. His first wife was Rochel, the daughter of Kalba Savuah. This Rochel corresponded to Rochel Imeinu. Rebbi Akiva's second wife was the ex-wife of Tornosrufus the wicked. Tornosrufus was a Roman governor who often debated Rebbi Akiva about the merits of religiosity and Judaism. His wife wound up converting to Judaism and married Rebbi Akiva. This second wife corresponded to Leah.

The Maharash M'Astropoli (Likkutei Shoshanim) says that after Ya'akov liberated Rebbi Akiva's soul from Eisav, it did not stay with Ya'akov for very long. Rebbi Akiva's soul went into another person named Shechem ben Chamor. This person was another low-life whom Rebbi Akiva wanted to help lift spiritually.

The Shvilei Pinchas says that one hint which supports this notion is the Gemara (Pesachim, chap. 3, "Eilu Ovrin", pg. 49b) that says that once Rebbi Akiva told his students that when he was an uneducated man, he hated Torah scholars with such a passion that he wanted to bite them like a "chamor" (donkey). Why would Rebbi Akiva compare himself specifically to a donkey? Do donkeys have the hardest bite? What about hippos, alligators, and gorillas? Rebbi Akiva was hinting to his students that once upon a time he used to reside within somebody whose "last name" was "Chamor," as in "Shechem ben Chamor."

Shimon and Levi saw, with their Divine inspiration, that the spark of Rebbi Akiva was inside of Shechem be Chamor. They had the same concern that Ya'akov had, which was, that his being there might backfire. Therefore, they killed Shechem ben Chamor in order to free Rabbi Akiva's soul once again.

This explains a lot about Shechem's obsession for Dina. It also explains what happened to Rebbi Akiva when he died.

The Yalkut Reuveini (Parshas Vayishlach 131) says that the forces of impurity loathe the side of holiness (Shemos 1:12). However, if we find that an evil force desires something holy, it is a sign that there must be a spark of holiness within that evil force which is connected to the holiness that it lusts. One example of this is Shechem ben Chamor. He was madly in love with Dina. This seems strange because Shechem was an impure force, whereas Dina was a completely righteous woman. Shechem should have been disgusted with Dina. Why did he fall head over heels for her?

This was a sign that Shechem possessed a holy spark within him which was connected to her. Shechem desired the holy Dina because of the holy spark within him which was connected to her family, more specifically, to Ya'akov Avinu. Even Shechem could not explain why he was so attracted to Dina. Unbeknownst to him was a holy spark that drew him to her like a magnet.

When the Romans were ripping the skin off of Rebbi Akiva with iron combs, he recited Shema Yisrael. As he said the final word "Echad" (One), his soul left his body. A Heavenly voice said, "Fortunate are you Rebbi Akiva that your soul left your body while you said Echad" (Berachos, chap. 9, "Haroeh", pg. 61b). Why is it imperative to know that Rebbi Akiva died saying "Echad?"

Reish Lakish (Bereishis Rabba 80:7) makes an observation that during the story of Shechem's lust for Dina, the Torah uses three expressions of love: Ahavah (love; Vayishlach 34:3), Chafitzah (desire; Vayishlach 34:19), and Devika (attachment; Vayishlach 34:3). These three types of love that Shechem had for Dina was not coming from such a holy place. Shechem had other lewd thoughts about what he wanted to do to Dina.

However, simultaneously, there was a holy spark of Rebbi Akiva inside of him. Therefore, later on, when Rebbi Akiva was Rebbi Akiva, he tried to fix those three loves by directing them to the love of God. Rebbi Akiva demonstrated this love of God by making the ultimate sacrifice, giving up his life for Hashem.

This is why we stress that Rebbi Akiva died while saying "Echad." It is because the Hebrew word "Echad" is spelled with three letters: aleph, ches, and dalet. These three letters serve as the acronym for, "Ahava, Chafitzah, and Devika." The heavenly voice said, "Fortunate are you Rebbi Akiva that your soul departed with "Echad" on your lips," meaning that he succeeded in channeling all those loves to Hashem (Maharash M'Astropoli).

The Shvilei Pinchas says that this also explains why Shimon and Levi demanded that the men of Shechem undergo circumcision (Vayishlach 34:14-15). This was not only a strategic move which would render the Shechemites defenseless from their attackers, but it was also in order to remove the orlah (foreskin) from Shechem ben Chamor, which served as a klipah (barrier) preventing Shimon and Levi from connecting with his inner spiritual beauty, the soul of Rebbi Akiva. The circumcision would make it easier for Shimon and Levi to unshackle the spark of Rebbi Akiva who was imprisoned inside of Shechem.

At this point, we have established that Rebbi Akiva's soul was once inside of Eisav, and later on it resided inside of Shechem ben Chamor. Let's stop focusing on Rebbi Akiva for a moment, and turn our attention to Rebbi Akiva's 24,000 students.

The Rama M'Pano (Asara Ma'amaros, Ma'amar "Eim Kol Chai", vol. 1 chap. 3; Gilgulei Neshamos chap. 76), Chesed L'Avraham (5:25), and the Seder Hadoros (Erech Rebbi Akiva citing Emek Hamelech, pg. 40b) say that the souls of Rebbi Akiva's 24,000 students went into the 24,000 men of Shechem who were killed by Shimon and Levi. Just as Rebbi Akiva went into Shechem ben Chamor in order to try and lift him spiritually, his 24,000 students followed their Rebbe's path and entered into the 24,000 men of Shechem with the intention of bringing them closer to God.

Although there is no verse which explicitly says that there were 24,000 men living in Shechem at that time; nevertheless, there is nothing which isn't hinted to in the Torah. The Hebrew letter "Aleph" not only has a numerical value of 1, but it can also represent 1,000. This is because, when the letter "Aleph" is spelled out: aleph, lamed phey, and the vowels are changed, it spells the word "Eleph" which means "a thousand." There are five verses which are dedicated to telling the story about Shimon and Levi taking their swords, entering Shechem, killing the men, and rescuing their sister, Dina (Vayishlach 34:25-29). In those verses, there are exactly 24 "Alephs", which hint at 24 "Eleph" (thousand) men who were slain.

First, Shimon and Levi had all those men undertake circumcision in order to remove any negative partitions, making it easier to set the souls of Rebbi Akiva's students free. Only then did they kill the unholy bodies of Shechem's men, finalizing the extraction. In fact, the very willingness on part of the men of Shechem to undergo circumcision to begin with was inspired by the sparks of Rebbi Akiva's holy students that were inhabiting them (Shvilei Pinchas).

So far, we have found that Rebbi Akiva's soul was inside of Eisav and then inside of Shechem ben Chamor. We have also seen that Rebbi Akiva's 24,000 students were inside of the 24,000 men of Shechem. Perhaps we could suggest that the 24,000 students were inside other people before they got to the men of Shechem.

Maybe the 24,000 students of Rebbi Akiva were inside of Eisav's men first. You might be thinking that this cannot be the case since the verse explicitly states that Eisav had only 400 men (Vayishlach 33:1). Well, the Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 75:12, Rebbi Yanai) says that the 400 men of Eisav were not just soldiers, they were 400 generals. This means that each one of them was in charge of a platoon. Although it does not say any specific number of how many men Eisav had in total, wouldn't it be interesting if there were 24,000 men in all? This would mean that each general would have been in charge of 60 men (400 x 60 = 24,000). Shlomo Hamelech had 60 warriors surrounding his bed at night (Shir Hashirim 3:7). This would indicate that the average platoon consisted of 60 men.

Rebbi Akiva's 24,000 students went into the 24,000 men of Eisav with the intention of bringing them closer to Hashem. It worked. Rashi (Vayishlach 33:16) points out that by the end of the meeting with Ya'akov, all of Eisav's men slipped away. They didn't want to have anything to do with Eisav. As a result, Hashem rewarded them later on. Perhaps, the motivation of putting distance between themselves and the wicked Eisav came from the 24,000 holy sparks that resided within them.

After this victory, they went from Eisav's men into the men of Shechem in order to help them, just as Ya'akov had moved from Eisav to Shechem ben Chamor. The Rama M'Pano says that after the men of Shechem were wiped out, Rebbi Akiva's soul went into Zimri ben Salu (who was the prince of the tribe of Shimon; Parshas Pinchas 25:14), and the 24,000 souls of Rebbi Akiva's students went into the 24,000 men from the tribe of Shimon who died in a plague (Parshas Balak 25:9). In fact, the words, "Zimri ben Salu" is numerically 406. This is the same numerical value as the words, "Akiva ben Yosef" which is 395. There are 11 letters in "Akiva ben Yosef." If you give one point for each letter, it brings 395 to 406. This hints at Rebbi Akiva residing in Zimri (Arizal Sefer Hagilgulim chap. 9).

This gilgul was supposed to be a reward to them for all the hard work and effort they put into trying to help others. The reason why they were reincarnated specifically into people who belonged to the tribe of Shimon was because the idea to kill out the men of Shechem and rescue the holy souls there came primarily from Shimon. Yes, Levi joined forces with Shimon, but since Shimon was older than Levi, the main idea came from him.

Unfortunately, having spent so much time with Eisav and his men, and then with Shechem ben Chamor and his men, the pure souls of Rebbi Akiva and his students were influenced negatively. This baggage that they carried with them were stains on their souls which moved them to commit the crime of prostitution with the daughters of Moav and Midian.

Pinchas eliminated Zimri, and the 24,000 men of Shimon died in a plague. Finally, they were reincarnated again into Rebbi Akiva and his 24,000 students. All of these gilgulim were a means of purification. Each gilgul cleanses the soul a little bit more (Arizal, Sha'ar Hakavanos, Pesach, Drush 1).

The Rama M'Pano says that this explains why the students of Rebbi Akiva did not respect each other sufficiently (Yevamos chap. 6, "Haba Al Yevimto", pg. 62b). It is because, as Torah scholars, they were endowed with Divine inspiration. As such, they were aware of their previous transmigration. They remembered being part of Shimon's tribe. They recalled their sin of harlotry. That sin was still fresh. It hadn't been wiped clean yet. Therefore, when each student looked at himself and saw his own sin, he found it hard to respect himself, let alone one of his fellow students. When they saw each other's disgusting sin of the past they could not bring themselves to respect each other.

The Shvilei Pinchas says that this also explains why they died in a plague. Yes, it's true, they didn't respect each other enough. But wasn't death by plague a bit extreme? They should have just been given a slap on the hand. Why was their punishment so severe? It doesn't seem to fit the crime.

One answer is that they were not punished only for the lack of respect, but they were also punished for their previous sin of prostitution. They died once by plague for that sin, but it wasn't enough. They had to die a second time by plague in order to cleanse them completely. This is what each gilgul does. It further cleanses the soul.

This will explain our custom of celebrating Lag Ba'Omer. The Tur (Orach Chaim 493:2), Mechaber (ibid), and Avudraham say that, on Lag Ba'Omer, we stop the minhag of mourning and we once again take haircuts because that's when the students of Rebbi Akiva stopped dying. At first glance it seems to make sense. Since the plague stopped, we are happy. But, upon further analysis, it really doesn't make sense.

Imagine, the last student of Rebbi Akiva just died. There is no more Yeshiva. The world is practically desolate of Torah. What's our reaction to this? MAZEL TOV! Is this really a time to rejoice? Apparently, it should be the day of greatest mourning. On Lab Ba'Omer (the 32nd day) I was happier. At least a few Torah scholars were still alive. Now, on Lag Ba'Omer (the 33rd day), that nobody's left, we should call for a day of mourning, not festivity (Pri Chadash 493:2).

The Shvilei Pinchas addresses this by saying that when it says that the students of Rebbi Akiva "stopped dying," it means that there was no longer a need for them to become another gilgul and die again. They finally achieved their tikkun (fixing, repairing, mending). Yes, we do hurt from the absence of all those Torah scholars, but we are so happy for them that they reached their tikkun. Therefore, the occasion does call for a celebration.

This pattern we have discovered in Jewish history fits into the Kabbalistic teaching that a person can come back as a gilgul into a person only three times (Iyov 33:29; Tikkunei Zohar Tikkun 33, pg. 76b, Parshas Mishpatim 21:11). Rebbi Akiva and his students were:

1) Inside of Shechem ben Chamor and his men.
2) Inside of Zimri and the men of his tribe.
3) Rebbi Akiva and his students.

Should one ask, "What about when they were inside of Eisav and his men? This makes it four times, not three?" The answer is that being inside of Eisav and his men was the first time. That was not a gilgul. A gilgul is a reincarnation. That means, the soul was once alive as a person, then it died, and then it came back as another person. This was not the case by Eisav and his men. Since it was the first time, it was not called a gilgul. It turns out that a person can be born into four people, if necessary. The first is a birth, and then three subsequent gilgulim.

To me, there are two very powerful lessons that we can extrapolate from this whole story.

Number one:

Let's try to respect ourselves and each other a little bit more. Sometimes we find it hard to respect ourselves because we can see our own shortcomings. Sometimes we find it hard to respect others because we see their faults and deficiencies. This is what Rebbi Akiva's students struggled with. So, let's try to learn to see past the sins. Let's try to see that we have inner beauty. Let's try to see that inner beauty in others as well. This will increase our level of respect.

Number two:

Let's be committed, a little bit more, to reaching out to others, even though in the process we take a hit, just like Rebbi Akiva and his students were willing to do. Sometimes, when we try to help others, it gets in the way of our own spiritual growth. We could have accomplished so much more for ourselves in that time. Even so, we have to be willing to give up our own growth in order to help another get out of the mud.

So, may we B'nei Ya'akov be blessed with the strength and courage to reach deep within ourselves and make positive changes in our behaviors and in our attitudes, and may we help bring others closer to the love of Hashem, and usher in a time when death will come to a complete halt.