No one knew what she saw in him, but it must have been something special. He was impoverished, she was fabulously wealthy. He was a nobody, she was the daughter of the wealthiest man in Israel. He was an ignorant shepherd, she, an educated aristocrat. So vast was his distance from a Torah lifestyle that when he would encounter rabbis, he would later relate how he would have to fight an urge to bite them. And yet, she, Rachel, believed in him, and it allowed him, Akiva, to believe in himself.
We are our own worst critics. Most of us underestimate our capabilities and talents. I sometimes wonder how many artists are in this room, too nervous to share their art. I wonder how many great thinkers there are, with ideas that can change their family, their community, the world, but are too bashful to speak up. I wonder how many Torah scholars lived and died without ever opening a holy book. What a gift Rachel gave her husband by letting him know what she saw.
She planted a seed, but it took time to flower.
Their early years were spent in abject poverty. If that wasn’t bad enough, she, the heir to a fortune, was disowned by her father, who thought she lost her mind. They slept in a barn, and in the mornings, Akiva would tenderly pluck the pieces of straw out of his wife’s hair. He would then wipe the tears she tried to hide from her face. “I promise you,” he said, “one day things will be different. One day, I’ll buy you the most beautiful jewelry made of gold.” But she assured him, she didn’t want gold. She wanted him to grow, to succeed, to express the talents that she knew he had.
You all know the next part of the story. Akiva was one day walking by a stream and saw a rock. It was no ordinary rock; in the center of the rock there was a hole, from one side of the rock to the other. How does a solid rock have a hole in it? Akiva noticed an almost imperceptible drop of water from the nearby stream, dripping and dropping on the rock. And with that, the seed she planted burst through the soil. “If that dense rock could be penetrated by a constant drip of water, then I too can change.”
Legend has it, that he enrolled in the local school with his own son. Imagine the 40-year-old Akiva walking his five-year-old son to cheder, but instead of kissing him goodbye, walking in with him and sitting by his side. His students would later teach, “Ain habayshan lameid, one who is embarrassed cannot learn.” His strength of character, earlier expressed in his hate for the rabbis, was now being used to become one.
The rock proved to be an apt metaphor. The constant drip of Torah made an impact on him. Within a few years of study, he blossomed, transitioning quickly from an ignoramus to being educated to being a scholar. With his wife’s blessing, he kept at it. He was no longer dependent on her encouragement; he was finally able to see it in himself; he was bright, he was creative, and he soon discovered that he was also a master educator. His small group of students swelled to a staggering 24,000 students, and before long, he became known as Rosh Chachamim, the chief of the sages.
It was an exciting time for the Jews living in Judea. Though the Romans had recently destroyed the Temple, there was hope. A brave warrior, Bar Kochba, amassed a following of his own, soldiers who were fearless and were inflicting great damage on the Roman army who started to retreat. The Jews of Judea minted coins with a picture of the Temple on it. It was only a matter of time until Bar Kochba would rout the Romans entirely from the region and they would rebuild the Temple once and for all. Bar Kochba’s biggest supporter was the chief of the sages, Rabbi Akiva, who proclaimed that Bar Kochba was the messiah. History was coming to its glorious end.
And that’s when tragedy hit. A plague. A plague that impacted his students disproportionately to the rest of the population, wiping out every last one. At the same time, Bar Kochba was killed in battle. His soldiers, disillusioned without their leader, tried to surrender but were massacred by the bloodthirsty Roman army. Within a few weeks the legacy Rabbi Akiva was creating, the future he believed in, got ripped out of the soil. His bed of roses trampled under the randomness of illness and the venom of the Roman army. His students were dead; buried in a mass grave. The soldiers were hacked to pieces, the few who survived were dragged to Rome where they were paraded for all to see.
We don’t know what Rabbi Akiva was thinking during this time. I imagine they were very dark thoughts. Everything he worked for, everything he believed in… gone.
What we do know is that somehow, he was able to pick himself up. Likely with the encouragement of his greatest fan, his beloved wife Rachel, he did not wallow in self-pity. But he didn’t just forge forward. He reimagined what Judaism in general and Torah study in particular is really all about.
You see, until this point in life, his pursuit of spirituality was concrete and finite. The daily drop of water breaks through a rock, meaning, if only I study every day, eventually I will become someone different than who I am today. He collected students, seeing each additional student as a notch on his spiritual belt. He believed in an imminent end to history; today we are in exile, tomorrow we will be free. All these beliefs and practices are finite. A changed person, a number of students, a beginning and an end.
But it was at this juncture in his life that he had to face the question –What happens when all that you’ve invested in is gone? What happens when you cannot track or mark your success? What happens when you have nothing to show for all your hard work?
I think that’s a question that our community struggles with more than any other in the Orthodox community. I’ve been grappling with an uncomfortable question for quite some time now – Why is there less Torah study in Modern Orthodox communities than in Chassidic communities? Chareidi communities? Yeshivish communities? There’s no denying it. Whereas in some communities, the daily or weekly study of Torah is a given, you can see it in their shuls, in their publications, in their everyday life, in our community, you have to look a lot harder.
And I wonder if it has something to do with how intangible Torah study can be. You want to tell me to put up a Mezuzah, I buy it, I place it, I am done. You want to tell me to build a sukkah, I build it, I eat in it, I am done. You want to tell me to put on tefillin, to light candles, to give Tzedakah, all these mitzvos have a beginning and an end. But Torah study? How is that tracked? By the amount of minutes I engage in? By how I feel afterwards? And let’s be honest, I’ll never know enough to really be knowledgeable in Torah. Or as I hear so often, I just don’t see the relevance of this passage to my daily living. Sounds familiar?
I think we’re in good company. Rabbi Akiva must have grappled with this same question. He had nothing to show for it. What’s this all for? Where’s this all going? Why should I?
It was at this point, with this huge question hanging over his head, that Rabbi Akiva created his true legacy. He transformed once again, in a subtle but profound fashion. He didn’t think the Messianic era would come tomorrow, but he had perfect faith that it would indeed come – at the right time. When his colleagues cried over the destruction of the Temple, he laughed; let it be rebuilt today, tomorrow, two-thousand-years, it doesn’t matter. He decided to continue teaching Torah, only now he didn’t care for numbers. Instead, he gathered a mere five students around him. What happened? What changed?
What happened is that Rabbi Akiva went from playing the finite game of life to the infinite game of life.
Allow me to paint for you an image that will help us understand what I mean, the difference between a finite game and an infinite one:
A signpost stands at a fork in the road.
Pointing in one direction, the sign says “Victory.”
Pointing in another direction, the sign says “Fulfillment.”
We must pick a direction.
Which one will we choose?
If we choose the path to Victory, the goal is to win!
We will experience the thrill of competition as we rush toward the finish line.
Crowds gather to cheer for us!
And then it’s over.
And everyone goes home.
(Hopefully we can do it again)
If we choose the path to Fulfillment, the journey will be long.
There will be times in which we must watch our step,
There will be times we can stop to enjoy the view
We keep going.
We keep going.
Crowds gather to join us on the journey.
And when our lives are over,
those who joined us on the path to Fulfillment
will keep going without us and inspire others to join them too.
This is how best-selling author and business consultant, Simon Sinek, begins his book, The Infinite Game. Finite games have a beginning and an end, winners and losers, infinite games do not. Football is a finite game. Pickleball is a finite game. The important things in life are typically infinite. Love is not a finite game – there is no winner or loser, and the goal-line is constantly being moved. The pursuit of knowledge is not a finite game – we may have stages in our education, degrees and the like, but there is no beginning or end point, and when one of us becomes more knowledgeable, we all win.
Sinek’s thesis is that too often, likely because we are concrete, finite beings, we look for something to hold on to, some marker of our success, something tangible to point to, to assure us that we have accomplished. But in focusing on the tangible, we stop striving, we stop growing, we lose out in the richness of playing the infinite game.
Rabbi Akiva shared his newfound life philosophy in another well-known tale. Teaching Torah after the Bar Kochba revolt was a crime punishable by execution, but that did not deter Rabbi Akiva. “Are you out of your mind?” they asked him. “Why are you risking your life? For this?”
Rabbi Akiva shared a parable of a fox who saw a fish swimming furiously away from some fishermen. The fox encouraged the fish to join him on the shore where he would be safe, to which the fish replied, “You fool. Yes, I am endangering myself by staying in the water. But without water, I am dead. Without water, there is no life to preserve.”
Torah study, Rabbi Akiva now realized, is not a finite pursuit. It’s not about the books you’ve read, the students you have, the titles before or after your name. Torah is our life. “Ki heim chayeinu v’orech yameinu,” we say in the evening prayer. “For it is our life and the length of our days.” No beginning, no end. It’s an opportunity to transcend our finite world.
The mystics explain that when we pray, we are speaking to G-d, but when we study, it’s as if G-d is speaking to us. His infinite wisdom is somehow captured in the stories, the lessons, the laws, and given to us to imbibe. It’s not about learning a particular lesson; it’s about understanding and connecting to G-d Himself. Some go so far as to describe the Torah as a love letter from G-d to us, His beloved people.
In the 10th century, Rav Saadia Gaon wrote that the Jewish People are a people, not due to shared geography or culture, but by virtue of the Torah. According to him, studying Torah is about Jewish Peoplehood and identity. It’s about connecting through this shared language to our past, present, and future, and to Jews all over the world.
There is no beginning or end. The lessons are at times relevant to our day-to-day, and at times entirely impractical. But so are so many of life’s infinite pursuits, love, wisdom, and yes, deep and immersive Torah study.
Rabbi Akiva, as we know, gave up his life for this infinite pursuit. But infinite pursuits live on beyond the grave. His name is invoked, his teachings are taught, his legacy has lasted for two thousand years.
And he wasn’t the only one. Throughout the centuries, our ancestors sacrificed so much to bring you and me to this place and time. What were they sacrificing it for? They too believed in the infinite. They too believed, like Rabbi Akiva’s colleague who was murdered together with him, that the finite scroll may burn, but the infinite letters, the teachings, they go up to the heavens. That each generation may come and go, but there is something precious, our national treasure, the Torah, that will live on.
But we struggle, like Rabbi Akiva once struggled, with this task. We, who live with plenty, who have career paths with concrete goals, who get monthly statements from our banks, who live in a most material, physical, and finite world, we struggle to appreciate the beauty and grandeur of something that defies our finite world. Perhaps we can be inspired by Rabbi Akiva. Perhaps we can be inspired by the ignorant shepherd who hated the Torah and its teachers. Perhaps we too can change.
With Rabbi Akiva as my inspiration, I’d like to invite you to join me in a project. It is the most ambitious project that I, and our shul, have ever engaged in. I want to invite you, when I say you, I mean every single one of you, to learn every day from Sunday through Friday. Not for an hour, not even for a half hour, but anywhere from 1 to 13 minutes. That’s it, a maximum of 13 minutes. No one here does not have 13 minutes to spare.
We’ll call it 6/13. Get it? Six days, 13 minutes.
And I’m going to make it easier for you. I’m going to suggest what we learn each day. There’s this well-known book. It’s actually sitting right in front of you. That blue book that the mystics would describe as THE ultimate love letter from G-d, or the rationalists would describe as THE book which our entire Jewish identity revolves around. It’s a good book; a bestseller, we read it every week in shul, and we are called the people of the book, but how well do we know what it says?
And I’m going to make it even easier for you. I’ll be giving daily classes – not longer than 13 minutes, I promise, sharing a synopsis and insights from the weekly Torah portion so that together, as a community, we can complete THE book within a year.
Now I don’t want you to commit to an entire year. I want you to consider it. Whether it’s with me, by yourself, with a friend, or using one of the incredible apps that can help you do so. I’ll send an email after Rosh Hashana with all the information you need.
Can we strongly consider doing this for a year?
Can we try doing this for at least the exciting book of Bereishis, from Simchas Torah to the end of December?
Can we commit to joining me just for this week?
It’s Rosh Hashana and G-d is deciding what our year ahead will look like; life and death, health and wellness, gains or losses. But He’s not the only one making decisions today; we also have decisions to make. We are all standing at that crossroad – Do we continue down the path of finitude? Of trackable accomplishments that will live and die? Or do we take the path of the infinite? Reaching beyond ourselves into eternity?
I hope you can join me on this journey.