Tuesday, May 08, 2012

be all that you can be

The gemara (Kesubos 62) relates the famous story of R' Akiva:

R' Akiva was a shepherd who worked for Kalba Savu'a. Kalba Savu'a daughter Rachel saw that he was modest and refined and offered to marry him on the condition that he would go and learn in yeshiva. He agreed, and they became secretly engaged... R' Akiva went and learned for twelve years and returned home with a following of 12,000 students. As he approached, he heard someone criticizing his wife, saying that she was like a widow, as her husband was gone for so long. She answered back that if was up to her, her husband could stay away another twelve years. R' Akiva inferred that he had his wife's permission to continue learning, and so he immediately turned around and returned to yeshiva. After another twelve years he returned home again, this time with 24,000 students. R' Akiva's wife came out to greet her husband, now the great Tanna, and fell at his feet. The students tried to push her away, but R' Akiva told them to leave her, as all his Torah and theirs came through her merit alone.

Its' clear from the gemara that R' Akiva assumed he could spend at least twelve years learning, enough time to attract 12,000 students. But why? Where did he get this idea from? All his wife told him was that she was getting married on the condition that he learn in yeshiva. Imagine a kollel husband and his wife to be discussing their future plans before the wedding. Together, they decide that he should continue in yeshiva. Right after the wedding, he leaves home and is not heard from for the next twelve years. I imagine that any wife faced with such a situation would say this is certainly not what she bargained for!

R' Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi explains that R' Akiva and his wife understood that yeshiva is not just a place that you spend a few days/months/years accumulating knowledge. It's not about becoming an expert in some particular discipline, an expert in the "field" of Talmud or Jewish law. Yeshiva is about becoming what you are capable of becoming -- "Be all that you can be," to borrow the slogan from elsewhere. When R' Akiva's wife set as a condition of her marrying him that he go to yeshiva, implicit in her "tnai" was the fact that she wanted him to fulfill his potential -- that's what yeshiva is for.  Had he come come home after a year, after five years, after even ten years, even with as many hundreds or thousands of students that might have joined him by that point, R' Akiva would still not have accomplished all that he was meant to.  His potential would still have been unfulfilled.

When R' Akiva returned home and heard his wife agreeing that he could spend another twelve years in yeshiva, this was not a new "matir," not additional permission she was granting him on top of her original consent. This was part and parcel of their original marriage agreement. When you are capable to having 24,000 students, to have only 12,000, as great an achievement as that may be, is nonetheless to stop halfway. R' Akiva's wife did not want a half-way solution -- she wanted her husband to be R' Akiva, in the fullest sense of what he was capable of becoming.

(Interestingly, it was not his sharp mind that attracted R' Akiva's wife to him and led her to recognize his potential, but it was his midos tovos, and in particular, his tzniyus -- the gemara describes him as "tzani'a u'ma'alei." On that basis alone, R' Akiva's wife was able to discern that he had the seeds of becoming the gadol hador.  Apparently lomdus alone doesn't cut it.)

Lest this post be misinterpreted, let me say that of course not everyone is R' Akiva.  Goals and aspirations need to be realistic.  Both husband and wife need to be on the same page -- it would not have worked if R' Akiva thought he could spend twelve years in yeshiva and his wife expected him home in a week, or if his wife wanted him to learn for twelve years and he just didn't have it in him.  That being said, punching the clock is not a goal.  Live up to your potential, whatever it is.  R' Akiva did not stop at 12,000 students when he knew he could have 24,000.  Someone who can learn two blatt a day doesn't need to close the gemara just because the daf yomi calendar says he is done.  That's what R' Akiva's life is all about, and what we look forward to celebrating on Lag ba'Omer.    


  1. This is all very nice but if you aren't lucky enough, like R' Akiva was, to have someone else paying your way through life, then should you go through life feeling that you have already failed to achieve your potential? I personally find it hard to understand what the Torah envisions for a person that steps out of the yeshiva because he has to work. This is something that is simply not discussed or presented in yeshivas today. It is strongly implied that all people who stop learning/teaching Torah full time and work are losers and have no purpose in life (except when they have money to ggive to yeshivas).

  2. While that may be the impression, in reality there are Yeshivas that do stress the goal of becoming a ben Torah in whatever a person's chosen career path. Even - or especially - if they are out in the non-full-time-learning-teaching world. That is probably what the Torah envisions for a person who steps out of yeshiva: Torah im derech eretz - not to leave the yeshiva behind, but rather to take it with him and be a mensch, be a positive example, a "light unto the nations", to continue to grow in learning and midos tovos and continually strive to fulfill his potential in all of these areas. For the (future) R' Akiva's of the world, they should certainly be provided with the environment to grow and achieve their potential. The same is equally true for every other individual - that they be guided and provided with the tools to fulfill their potential - to become the best mensch and ben Torah that they can be - in whatever profession or work that best suits them. Leaving the yeshiva does not exempt one from living every aspect of their lives with Torah & mitzos, whether as a parent, child, co-worker, person in the street, shopper, driver, etc., nor are they excused from continuing to improve on themselves and to keep growing in learning to the best of their abilities. It's simply not true that these aspirations are only reserved for the yeshiva bochur or kollel yungerleit (quite the opposite) as these are the goals and the duty of every single person. Perhaps this concept is not yet stressed enough in all yeshivas, but there are yeshivas out there that are, and many that are coming around and others that are starting to come around. One only becomes a "loser" if they give up and stop growing or permanently stagnate, whether they're in yeshiva full-time or out in the work force or anywhere else.

  3. chaim b.6:42 PM

    >>>if you aren't lucky enough, like R' Akiva was, to have someone else paying your way through life,

    I did not quote the gemara in its entirety because it was not relevant to the point I wanted to make, but Chazal say that Kalba Savu'a disinherited his daughter and R' Akiva and they lived in dirt poor conditions.

    >>>This is something that is simply not discussed or presented in yeshivas today

    Absolutely correct -- I have been meaning to write about this, but never get the chance. Stay tuned -- you put me in the mood to do it. But to your point: who says you can't work and fulfill your potential? If you have to tune out the false messages out there that say you can't, that's part of the nisayon.

    Red Devil -- nicely put.

    1. Red Devil - thanks for your thoughts.

      >>>"R' Akiva and they lived in dirt poor conditions."

      Good point. But somehow R' Akiva managed to live for 24 years without working. I am not sure exactly what was going on in their lives - did they have children? Was the Rebbetzin working to support him and the rest of the family? - but at the end of the day he was able to get someone to provide him - and his family - with what they needed so that he could sit and learn without having to work.

      >>>"who says you can't work and fulfill your potential?"

      Many Rabbis say this. I say this to myself when I get in a bad mood. But you are right.

      Thanks for your post and response. I think it's an important issue. I am at a certain crossroads that I am sure many other people in their mid-20's face as well.

  4. "R' Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi explains..."

    How about a link?