Rabbi Akiva lived in the first and second centuries CE; he was the most prominent sage of his time. He was a leading pedagogue, the foremost Kabbalist of his time, and participated in the writing of the essential spiritual texts of his time—the Mishnah and the Halacha. At the same time, he was the spiritual leader of the Bar-Kokheva revolt, and was the man who revealed to the world the law of love.
Until the age of forty, Rabbi Akiva was an illiterate shepherd who led an ordinary life. He never dreamed that one day all of this would change dramatically.
The Turning Point
Until that turning point, Rabbi Akiva worked as the shepherd for Kalba Savua. Around age forty, he began to feel an uncontrollable urge to know the meaning of life and to discover the rules that govern it. At that time, he was romantically involved with Rachel, the daughter of Kalba Savua, one of the wealthiest and most respected men in Jerusalem at the time. The girl’s father was not happy with his daughter’s infatuation with a “simpleton.” But as the best stories go, love prevailed, and the lovers married against her father’s will.
According to the Talmud (a commentary on the Mishnah), it was Rachel who encouraged Rabbi Akiva to leave his home and go study Kabbalah from the greatest Kabbalists of the time. Her heart told her that only in this way would her husband find the answer to his questions. She made him swear he would not return before he has attained the laws of the Upper World. And thus, with his wife’s blessings, Rabbi Akiva’s spiritual path began.
Rabbi Akiva studied under three Kabbalists: Rabbi Elazar, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Nahum, Man of Gamzu. He climbed the rungs of the spiritual ladder degree by degree, and slowly surpassed his teachers, finally becoming the leading Kabbalist of his generation.
Once he had learned all he could from his mentors, Rabbi Akiva established his own seminary. Word of his wisdom spread quickly, and 24,000 students from all over the country came to learn from him.
Discovering the Law of Love
Rabbi Akiva’s unique teaching methods established brotherly love among his students. The physical reality obeys the same law of love, the Creator, which governs the spiritual realms. Therefore, when a person operates according to the law of love, he or she is in balance with Nature and feels as whole and eternal as Nature. But when we act out of self-love instead of brotherly love, we suffer and feel unhappy.
Happiness or unhappiness don’t come to us from outside ourselves; they are a direct result of our similarity to Nature (the Creator). The Creator gives us nothing but good things because He is a force of love. But if we are opposite from Him, we cannot receive them. This is the cause of every pain and misfortune in the world.
Rabbi Akiva discovered that the law of Nature, the law of love, is constant and unchanging. He learned that when we change our attitude to others, we suddenly feel the whole of reality change, too. He recognized that egoistic relationships are the cause of every form of suffering in the world.
The ego, or as Kabbalists call it, “self-love,” locks us within the limited reality we sense, and doesn’t let us into the eternal, spiritual realm of life. The only way to experience the eternal is by changing our attitude toward others. Rabbi Akiva summarized his findings in his famous maxim, “Love thy friend as thyself; this is a great rule in the Torah (teaching).”
The Bar-Kokheva Revolt
In the year 132 CE, under the leadership of Shimon Bar-Kokheva, the Kingdom of Judea rebelled against the Romans. It seemed as if they would be successful when the Romans were forced to retreat. In desperation, the Romans called for assistance, and when the fresh troops arrived, the balance of power shifted. The Romans destroyed everything on their path and conquered the Kingdom of Judea. Tens of thousands of Jews were killed, and those who were taken captive were sold to slavery.
Crushing Bar-Kokheva’s rebellion was the beginning of one of the most meaningful periods in the history of Kabbalah. The physical ruin of Judea was a manifestation of its people’s spiritual decline, and the clearest symbol of this waning was the building of the pagan city of Aelia Capitolina on the ruins of Jerusalem.
Kabbalists who continued to teach despite the ruin were tortured to death, and Rabbi Akiva would become one of these victims. He continued to teach and share Kabbalah wisdom until he, too, was seized by the Romans. They sent him off to Caesarea Prison, where he was brutally executed by the Roman commissioner.
Two Blows to Rabbi Akiva’s Work
In the past 5,000 years or so, humanity experienced several outbreaks of egoism. Each outbreak manifested in people wanting more than they did before, and each changed the course of history.
The first outbreak occurred in Babel, at the time of Abraham. The second was during Moses’ time, and the third was during Rabbi Akiva’s time. As a result of this last burst of egoism, the brotherly love among Rabbi Akiva’s students was overthrown by unfounded hatred. This led to the spiritual decline of his students, who were no longer able to perceive the spiritual world, but were limited to perceiving only this world.
After the students fell into unfounded hatred, they suffered another blow. They were struck by a plague, killing all but five of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students. The remaining five survived because they had retained their sense of brotherly love. One of the five survivors of the plague was the man who was to continue Rabbi Akiva’s teaching and put it to writing. His name was Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai, who would later write The Book of Zohar.