Thursday, May 21, 2009

Rabbi Akiva the Undaunted

I am making no progress on my derashah for Shabbat, and my Avot d'Rabbi Natan class for Shabbat afternoon is proving recalcitrant as well, but I am completely taken by Rabbi Akiva, the topic of the latter class.

Here's a rough translation of the section of Avot d'Rabbi Natan we'll be using (6:2); the particular segment that fascinates me is in bold:

Pirkei Avot teaches: "Wrestle in the dust of their feet."

How? When a talmid chacham enters the city, do not say, ‘I do not need him.’ Rather, go to him. Do not sit with him on a bed, chair or bench, but rather sit before him on the ground, and accept every word that leaves his mouth in intimidation, awe, trembling and shaking, as your ancestors received the Torah from Har Sinai in intimidation, awe, trembling and shaking.

Alternatively: ‘Wrestle in the dust of their feet’ refers to Rabbi Eliezer, and ‘Drink their words thirstily’ refers to Rabbi Akiva.

What was Rabbi Akiva’s beginning? They said: He was forty years old, and he had not learned at all. Once he was standing by a well and he asked, ‘Who carved this stone?’ They told him, ‘The water which continually falls upon it, daily.’ And they said to him, ‘Akiva! Have you not read (Job 14:19), ‘Stones were eroded by water?’
Immediately Rabbi Akiva drew a logical inference for himself: If the soft can carve the hard, then how much more so could words of Torah, which are hard as iron, carve my heart of flesh and blood!
Immediately Rabbi Akiva sought to study Torah. He and his son went and sat by the schoolteachers, and he said, ‘My master, teach me Torah!’ Rabbi Akiva gripped the top of the board and his son gripped the other end of the board, and the teacher wrote א ב and he learned it, א ת and he learned it, Torat Kohanim and he learned it. He continued to learn until he had learned the entire Torah.

He sat before Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua and said to them, “My masters, begin to teach me the reasons of the mishnah!” When they taught him a law, he went and sat privately and asked, “Why is thisא written? Why is this ב written? Why is this said?” He then went back and asked them and stumped them with words.

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said: I’ll compare this to a chiseler who was chiseling in the mountains. Once he took his blade and went and sat atop a mountain, and struck small pebbles from it, and people came and asked him, ‘What are you doing?’
He said to them, ‘I will uproot this mountain and cast it into the Jordan River.’
They said to him, ‘You cannot uproot the entire mountain!’
He continued to chisel until he reached a great stone. He then entered beneath it, undermined it and uprooted it and cast it into the Jordan River, saying, ‘This is not your place; that is your place.’
That is what Rabbi Akiva did to Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua.
Rabbi Tarfon said to him: Akiva! Regarding you it is written (Job 28:11), ‘He binds the streams so that they do not weep; he brings that which is hidden to light.’ That which had been hidden from humanity, Rabbi Akiva has brought to light.

Each day Rabbi Akiva would bring a bundle of wood. Half he would sell to support himself, and the other half he would use for his own needs. His neighbors complained, saying to him, ‘Akiva! You have destroyed us with smoke! Sell the wood to us, and purchase oil with the money and study by the light of a lamp!’
He replied, ‘I meet many needs with the wood; I use part to study and part to warm myself and part on which to sleep.’
Rabbi Akiva will make paupers liable for judgment, for when they are asked, ‘Why did you not learn Torah’ and they reply, ‘Because we were poor,’ they will be told, ‘Rabbi Akiva was exceptionally poor and destitute!’ And when they say, ‘We had children,’ they will be told, ‘Rabbi Akiva had sons and daughters.’ But they will say: It is because of the merit of his wife Rachel.
Rabbi Akiva went to study Torah when he was forty years old. After thirteen years he taught Torah publicly.
They said: He did not pass away until he had tables of silver and gold, and he ascended to his bed with ladders of gold. His wife had tunics and an ir shel zahav. His students said: Our master, you have embarrassed us with what you have made for her! Rabbi Akiva replied: She endured great pain with me, for Torah.

I love the resolution of that image of the chiseler uprooting the mountain; I have known such people, in Torah and elsewhere, and their dedication to a vision and their resilient refusal to bow before adversity is awe-inspiring.

But I wonder: What is the rock, and what is the Jordan River?
Does the rock represent the sages, and Rabbi Akiva chisels away at their teachings, embracing and then understanding and then challenging their lessons until he can sink them in the river before his own accomplishments?
Or is Rabbi Akiva himself the rock, and is his task that of immersing his own stubborn self in the Torah?


  1. Very interesting question. Let me offer a possibility:

    It seems to be telling us that Rabi Akiva questioned why we did things a certain way/why things were a certain way (questioning the status quo). This might be a stretch, but from it saying “Why is this א written? Why is this ב written?" We know Rabi Akiva darshaned the tagin on the letters, learning dinim even Moshe Rabbeinu was amazed with (see Menachos). Perhaps these were the types of questions Rabi Akiva asked.

    The mountain represents the status quo. The chiseler wanted to change the status quo for something even better. But, if you would move the big boulder somewhere else, others may still stumble upon it or be influenced by it. So he cast it into the river, where it would be concealed.

    We know great innovators were always doubted and even mocked. In the scientific world, take Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, Einstein. In the Torah world, we know RYA was highly critical of R' Chaim's new derech and called him "the chemist." We know many were critical of RYBS (even R" Elchanan was highly critical of R" MOshe Soloveichik zt"l for becoming RY at RIETS). But they knew the status quo was insufficient for the future.

  2. When they taught him a law, he went and sat privately and asked, “Why is thisא written? Why is this ב written?

    I now see the girsa is not so certain. Perhaps this is the question he asked the melamed, not to Rabi Yehoshua.

  3. Talmid-
    It seems from both the girsaos and the binyan yehoshua that, indeed, he was questioning the status quo and developing the hallmark approach seen, among other places, in Menachos 29. See also the Ben Avraham available here.

    But there are other approaches, such as the idea of the Or Shivat haYamim here; he connects it to עוקר הרים וטוחנן זה בזה.