Rivkah and I went to San Diego for a little vacation this week. We went both because we needed it and to celebrate Rivkah’s 40th birthday. On our first day, we sat on the beach in La Jolla to watch the sea and the sea lions. It was a bit sunny and a bit overcast, just lovely. We sat, watching the sea, for about an hour. The tide came in, crashing wave by wave, onto the rocky shore. It was mesmerizing. Occasionally, a large wave would break against the rocks and splash us, but not often (and we were far enough away to prevent our getting really wet).
It got me to thinking about waves and water.
The Talmud says that each wave thinks that it will be the one to flood the earth, but the sand at the seashore is Hashem’s boundary, stopping it from bringing destruction. This can be understood as a metaphor for how people may plan to conquer the world, and to right the wrongs of society. Usually, we just fizzle out on the shore, but every once in a while someone comes along and makes the world a different – better – place.
Rabbi Akiva was such a man. He was an unlearned shepherd at 40, when he fell in love with Rachel, the daughter of his employer, Kalba Savua, the wealthiest man in Israel. Rachel saw untapped potential for Torah greatness in this simple shepherd and promised to marry him if he changed – now, I don’t really recommend marrying someone whom you want to change, as it is unlikely to happen – but in this case it worked out for the best.
Akiva didn’t think he could become a great Torah scholar – in fact, for most of his life, he hated Torah scholars!
One day, though, he was watering his flocks by a stream and saw a boulder with a hole in it, the stream trickling through the middle. The water, drop by drop, had carved this solid rock. Akiva realized that if water, which is without form, could wage war (and win!) against solid stone, then the Torah could certainly penetrate his heart and mind. He decided to try to learn it.
Akiva studied for 24 straight years, in harsh poverty. He had lost his job, after marrying Rachel, the boss’ daughter, and she had been disowned. But after those 24 years of study, he attained the distinction of being the Jews’ greatest scholar; he became the preeminent Sage in the Mishna.
It took love, vision, and water, but Akiva became Rabbi Akiva. He noticed the water and became inspired, and realized that significant change isn’t instantaneous. May we all learn from water as well: to observe, learn, change, and grow.
To learn more about Rabbi Akiva, his Rebbetzin, and the days in which they lived, join this month’s Book Club in reading Akiva by R’ Marcus Lehmann. The Book Club will be meeting June 16th at Marcia Torobin’s home.