Acquiring Torah 12: Rise to the Occasion
Rabbi Akiva gave five instructions to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai when Rabbi Akiva was incarcerated in prison (See Berachot 61b): Rabbi Shimon said to him, “Master! Teach me Torah!” Rabbi Akiva said, “I will not teach you (to protect his student from being imprisoned).” Rabbi Shimon said, “If you do not teach me, I will tell Yochai, my father, and he will report you to the government (for more serious crimes than those for which you were imprisoned [Maharsha])!” Rabbi Akiva said to him, “My son! More than the calf wishes to suck, the cow wishes to suckle.” Rabbi Shimon said to him, “But who is in danger? Is it not the calf (the student) that is in danger?” Rabbi Akiva said to him, “1. If you want to get yourself choked, hang yourself from a tall tree. 2. And when you teach your son, teach him with a book that has been corrected from mistakes. 3. Do not cook in a pot in which your friend has cooked. 4. If one wishes to perform a Mitzvah and profit handsomely, he should eat the produce and will have capital. 5. If one wishes to perform a Mitzvah and have a pure body as well, he should marry a woman, and to him, children!” (Pesachim 112a-b)
Rabbi Akiva’s death sentence could not have been more horrible than it was. The Romans understood how his existence threatened their control over Israel. It’s hard to imagine that the authorities allowed the Rabbinic guide of the Bar Kochva rebellion to have visitors while awaiting his execution. It’s hard to believe that they allowed Rabbi Akiva’s students to have any access to him, even through a window in his cell. They certainly supervised any interaction the leader of the Jewish people had with any of his followers. If all this interaction was in secret; why would Rabbi Akiva hesitate to teach Rabbi Shimon? He knew that Rabbi Shimon would always study Torah and be in danger from the Roman government.
We also have to wonder what Rabbi Shimon wanted to learn from his Rebbi in the final days of Rabbi Akiva’s life. I suspect that the student wanted his master to share lessons he learned from his situation. Therefore, the entire “conversation” was Rabbi Akiva’s way of teaching Rabbi Shimon, even when he said, “I will not teach you.”
The Roman guards heard: Rabbi Shimon said to him, “Master! Teach me Torah!” Rabbi Akiva said, “I will not teach you.” They heard Rabbi Shimon send a message that the Jews would continue to study Torah even after they witnessed what happened to Rabbi Akiva. They would have been concerned had they not heard Rabbi Akiva’s response, “I will not teach you.” They tasted victory.
Rabbi Shimon was asking Rabbi Akiva to direct the Jewish response to his death sentence. How will we continue to study Torah without you?
Rabbi Akiva responded, “I will not teach you.” You have to rise to the occasion and become the teacher.” Torah study does not survive only on what the teacher shares with his students; Torah study continues to thrive because, teachers focus on the principle, “make many students independent (Avot 1:1).”
Torah study demands that we use our learning to become involved and take responsibility.