In Perek 19 Pasuk 18 of this week’s Parsha, it says, ואהבת לרעך כמוך, “Love your neighbor as you do yourself.” As we all know, Rabbi Akiva explains that this is a fundamental principle, one of the pillars of Torah and Judaism. Rabbi Akiva, who experienced the terrible tragedy of having his students die, is the most suited person to speak about the importance of this Mitzva. He was a great Rosh Yeshiva with 24,000 students who all died during this time, the time between Pesach and Shavuot. It is such an incredible number of students to have that one cannot even fathom it even in our day of huge Yeshivot. Most people, having experienced such a blow, would have to deal with serious depression and hopelessness. If they managed to get over that, they would retire with a broken heart.
Rabbi Akiva realized that by all of his students dying in one fell swoop, it was a catastrophe that reflected negatively on him. That is why, the Gemara, in Yevamot 62b, says that when Rabbi Akiva’s students died and the world was desolate, he went to the south of Eretz Yisrael and started over again. Rabbi Akiva clearly had unbelievable resilience. No matter how great a disaster he suffered he would find a positive aspect in the darkest cloud. He would discover something positive, something to give him new hope, strength, and the self assurance to start over.
The Gemara in Makkot 24a tells a story that Rabbi Akiva lived through the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. He was walking past the ruins with several sages, when they burst into tears, except for Rabbi Akiva who began to laugh. He told the other sages that the reason he was laughing was because he knew that since the prophecy of the destruction came true, so too the prophecy of the redemption will also come true. We must learn from Rabbi Akiva to be able to find a glimmer of light in the deepest darkness. This is a very important trait, as well as an ability attuned to the Mitzva of loving others. He, more than anyone else, was able to see the best in all people and love them for it.