Is the COVID-19 Epidemic all bad? The legendary Jewish Sage of old, Rabbi Akiva, teaches us that even in the Coronavirus we can discover some good. Interestingly, for the first forty years of his life, Rabbi Akiva didn’t study Torah at all. When it came to religious matters, he was a complete ignoramus. The Talmud relates that his animosity to Torah scholars was so great, whenever he saw one, he wanted to bite him and break his bones. While he was working as a penniless shepherd for Kalba Savua, one of the richest landowners in Israel, Rabbi Akiva fell in love with the aristocrat’s daughter, Rachel. The modest maiden was instantly attracted to the peasant’s humility and noble character. Horrified by the match, her father threatened to disown her. Sensing Akiva’s potential, and ignoring her father’s opposition, she agreed to marry the hard-working peasant, on the condition that he dedicate himself to Torah study. Thus, at the age of forty, the illiterate shepherd sat in a classroom with young children and learned the letters of the Hebrew Alphabet. He progress slowly and soon grew discouraged. One day, while he was grazing sheep, he came across a deep hole in a boulder. “I wonder what caused the hole in the rock,” he mused. Just then, a droplet of water dripped down from an overhanging ledge above his head. The droplet fell into the hole in the boulder. Apparently, the slow and steady dripping of water, year after year, had bored the hole in the rock. “If small drops of water, a drop at a time, can make a hole in a large boulder,” he reasoned, “then certainly, the words of the Torah can penetrate my thick skull.” Applying himself diligently, Rabbi Akiva enrolled in a yeshiva in a faraway village and studied day and night for twelve years without once returning home to visit his wife. Finally, arriving for a visit after his long absence, when he reached the window of his tiny shack, he heard his wife conversing with a neighbor who jeered at her because her husband had abandoned her for so many years. “I would be happy if he were to sit and learn for another twelve years without coming home, if it would help him become a great teacher of Torah,” she told her friend. Hearing her words, Rabbi Akiva returned to the yeshiva without even saying hello to his wife. Twelve years later, he returned home accompanied by twenty-four thousand students. When Rachel heard that the great Rabbi Akiva, the leading Torah scholar in Israel, was approaching the village, she ran out to greet him. Seeing a woman throw herself down at the feet of the holy Sage, a student hurried forward to drag her away. “Leave her be!” Rabbi Akiva called out. “All the Torah I have learned, and all the Torah I have taught you, belong to her.”
When the Romans invaded the Land of Israel and conquered the country, razing Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, Rabbi Akiva led the Israelites in a rebellion against the powerful legions of Rome. Seeing the unworldly prowess of the Hebrew warrior, Bar Kochva, the humble Rabbi Akiva joined his ranks and served as his weapons carrier when Bar Kochva led the Jews into battle against the Roman invaders.
The famous story about Rabbi Akiva and trust in God occurred at this time. One day, on a journey to raise funds for the rebellion, come evening time, Rabbi Akiva approached an Israelite town surrounded by the tall wall. Discovering that the gate was locked, he knocked on its thick wooden door. “The city is closed for the night,” he heard a voice call out.
“All I request is lodging and fodder for my donkey,” he explained.
“The gate is closed for the night,” the voice of the guard repeated. “No one is allowed inside until morning. Those are my orders. Now go on your way and be off!”
“Everything God does is for the best,” Rabbi Akiva said to himself with a calm and confident voice, not feeling the least bit perturbed. Leading his donkey, and carrying a lantern, he walked away from the town. His only other possession of worth was a rooster he had taken with him in order to wake up every morning at the rooster’s first crowing so he could pray the dawn prayer. A short distance away from the village, as nightfall arrived, he left the road and found a place to camp in the woods. During the night, when a strong wind blew out the candle in his lantern, he said, “Everything God does is for the best.” In the pitch darkness, a fox devoured his rooster, and a lion killed his donkey. “Everything God does is for the best,” Rabbi Akiva calmly said, not troubled in the least. When he awoke in the morning, he returned to the town and discovered that Romans had plundered it during the night, setting the village afire. Had he spent the night in the village, he himself might had been killed. And if his candle hadn’t been extinguished, or if his donkey had brayed and his rooster had crowed, his whereabouts in the forest would have been disclosed, casting his life in danger. “Everything God does is for the best,” he affirmed once more, teaching us that even things which are seemingly bad in our eyes have a beneficial purpose in God’s Master Plan for the world, and for every person who seeks out His Presence.
This is also true when the plague of Coronavirus lurks just beyond our doors. This too is for the best. How do I know? Because the Almighty sent it. Because the Creator is ever kind and giving, always looking out for his creations, like a shepherd looks after his sheep, I know that in His love and kindness, He has created this plague to make the world a better place, to force mankind to cast away unworthy and unwholesome habits, and to begin a new chapter of history, when the world returns to God and to living according to His teachings. Adopting the positive outlook of Rabbi Akiva and his steadfast belief that everything is for the best, let me suggest a few examples. Corona has taught us to be more caring for others. It has taught us to appreciate the things that we have. It has taught us patience and compassion, the love of family and friends. In the fate we share with our neighbors, our community, our town and country, Corona has shattered our egotistical shells and made us feel responsible for others. It has promoted world unity, pulled down national boundaries, and placed mankind in the same storm-threatened boat. And out of our agony, and our sudden realization of the incredible, unsurpassed power of God, it has humbled our arrogant pride and made us realize that neither our power nor wisdom created the world, but that everything in the universe, from the rotation of the planets to the blooming of a flower, and our ability to get out of bed in the morning, all derive from the kindness and power of God.
One of Rabbi Akiva’s principle teachers was Rabbi Nahum, better known as Nahum Ish Gamzu. While some historians say that he came from the town of Gamzu, others offer another explanation for his name. The word, Ish, in Hebrew means “man.” Gamzu can be translated as, “this is also.” Whatever happened in his life, whether good or seemingly bad, he would say, “Gam zu l’tova,” meaning, “This too is for the good.”
A slight difference exists between Rabbi Akiva’s expression, “Everything God does is for the best,” and the expression of his teacher, “This too is for the good.” When Rabbi Akiva was barred from entering the village to lodge there for the night, he didn’t become upset because he trusted that whatever God decreed for him would turn out to be in his best interest. For instance, in a different period of his life, Rabbi Akiva had to journey to Rome on behalf of the Jewish community in Israel. On his way to the port, while walking along the dirt road with a companion, a long thorn entered his foot. Because of the pain, he was unable to continue. “Everything God does is for the best,” he said, accepting his fate without anger or remorse. His companion continued on to the port and boarded the ship, which departed without Rabbi Akiva. Sometime later, news arrived that the ship had sunk in a storm at sea, drowning all the passengers. Because of the thorn in his foot, Rabbi Akiva was saved. When the thorn had entered his foot, he hadn’t known that his salvation would come from it, but he trusted that God had brought about the inconvenience for his ultimate benefit.
In contrast, his teacher, Nahum Ish Gamzu, was won’t to say, “This too is for the good,” trusting that whatever happened to him was good for him, immediately, at the very moment, not only that it would turn out for his best interest in the future. This level of trust is even higher than Rabbi Akiva’s. The point is – in our own lives, when we understand that everything that comes our way, including Corona, has been orchestrated by God for our benefit, both the good things and the seemingly bad, this awareness elevates our beings and brings us to a state of happiness and calm, along with a greater attachment to the Creator, who renews His acts of Creation each day, not only in sustaining the entire world, but in our own individual lives as well.