The story of Rabbi Akiva’s martyrdom in sanctification of God’s name can be explained with this analogy.
The Talmud (Berakhot 61a) relates that when they (the Romans) took Rabbi Akiva out to be executed, it was time for the recitation of Shema.
They were raking his flesh with iron combs, and he was reciting Shema, thereby accepting upon himself the yoke of Heaven.
His students said to him: “Our teacher, even now, as you suffer, you recite Shema?”
He said to them: “All my days I have been pained by the verse ‘With all your soul,’ meaning, even if God takes your soul. I said to myself: When will the opportunity be afforded to me to fulfill this verse? Now that it has been afforded me, shall I not fulfill it?”
Throughout his whole life, Rabbi Akiva felt love for God.jWhat does a person who loves God do?
He studies more Torah and he dedicates himself more and more.
But none of this satisfies his love.
On the contrary, the Torah study only gives him a greater picture, loftier and more attractive, of the object of his love, and so his love simultaneously increases, flaming and tormenting him more.
This is the meaning of what Rabbi Akiva said to his students:
My whole life, I have been pained by the verse “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, etc.”
All his life, this verse caused Rabbi Akiva tremendous suffering, the pain of an insatiable, relentless passion.
Now, when Rabbi Akiva’s flesh was being raked with metal combs because he upheld God’s honor, his true pain finally subsided.
At long last, finding expression for his tormenting pangs of love, Rabbi Akiva was able to feel a sense of satisfaction and tranquility.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz