The Gemorah in Mesechta Yevamos relates that R’ Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of talmidim and they all perished within a short time. The beraisa points out that this transpired between Pesach and Shavuos.
The Shulchan Aruch paskens that the custom is to refrain from haircutting and various other minhogim of aveilus during this time frame, until Lag Ba’omer, on account of this tragedy. The Rema points out that following Lag Ba’omer, all is permitted. The Pri Chodosh wonders why after Lag Ba’omer all is permitted? What is the cause for simchah? It cannot be because the talmidim stopped dying. There were none left to die!
The Chida explains that the simcha of Lag Ba’omer is unrelated to the respite in the dying of the talmidim, based on the following gemorah. The gemorah says that R’ Akiva arrived in the south of Eretz Yisroel and formed a new group of talmidim and taught them Torah. This reestablishment of talmidei R’ Akiva is the cause for great simcha on Lag Ba’omer.
Granted, it was special that R’ Akiva was able to gather a new group of talmidim on this day, but the celebration of Lag Ba’omer throughout the ages, year after year seems somewhat excessive. What does the Chida mean?
Let us attempt to understand the depth of the Chida’s words by reviewing R’ Akiva’s life story.
He began his Torah quest at the age of forty. With tremendous toil and effort, he was able to achieve mastery of the Torah to a level that baffled even the likes of Moshe Rabeinu. He established a tremendous yeshiva consisting of twenty-four thousand talmidim, all of great stature. Then, unexpectedly, and swiftly, in a matter of several weeks, his entire student body perished tragically. His yeshiva was decimated! Done! Can one fathom the tremendous pain and agony that R’ Akiva endured? It takes much less to shatter and demoralize a person. One would imagine that R’ Akiva would have been cast into the throes of depression and despair. No way could he possibly possess the emotional fortitude to rebuild and begin from scratch, certainly not at his advanced age.
However, determined, and strong, he immediately traveled southward and gathered together a new group of talmidim and relentlessly and with great determination rebuilt-student by student. This became the foundation of the Torah and mesorah that we cling to today in the year-5781. Thus, Torah she’ba’al peh was preserved in its entirety for posterity.
This is what we celebrate on Lag Ba’omer according to the words of the Chida. R’ Akiva is eternal testimony that hope is never lost even in the bleakest of moments.
The fruits of R’ Akiva’s persistence and resolve is the legacy of R’ Shimon bar Yochai, R’ Akiva’s greatest talmid.
The mantra of Lag Ba’omer is, “Never give up- even in the most trying of times”.