“Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aharon the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion.
The plague caused by Zimri and the Midianite princess killed 24,000 people.
Rabbi Akiva was a reincarnation of Zimri. This is alluded to through the gematriah of “Akiva ben Yosef” being the same gematriah as “Zimri ben Salu,” with an additional three, for the words themselves. So Rabbi Akiva lost 24,000 students as a rectification for those lost people.
This same tradition claims that Rabbi Akiva himself was a reincarnation of Zimri/Shechem, and Rabbi Akiva’s third wife, who was a convert, was a reincarnation of Kozbi/Dina.
The 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva were therefore related to the 24,000 who died in the desert for siding with Zimri, and to the 24,000 who died in Shechem for the same reason, all because they were overly strict.
(Rashi, Megaleh Amukot; Vaetchanan 88 in the name of the Ariza"l; Rav Naftali Bachrach; Emek Hamelech Gate 5 chapter 69; Yalkut Reuveni; Parshat Balak; Rabbi Menachem Azarya DeFano; Sefer Gilgulei Neshamot section 20., Yalkut Reuveni, Parshat Pinchas and Gilgulim; Kehilat Yaakov: Ayin Kuf, Rabbi Akiva was married before he became a sage (Shabbat 127b). In that gemara an anonymous worker, who had a wife and children, is identified (See Rav Ahai Gaon, Parshat Shemot) as Akiva ben Yosef. Later, Akiva married the daughter of Ben Kalba Savua (Ketuvot 62b, Nedarim 50a), and subsequently married the widow of Turnus Rufus.Talmud Bavli Avoda Zara 20a; Nedarim 50b, Kehilot Yaakov, Yevamot 62b)
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