On the surface, Rabbi Akiva’s life is an inspiring tale of human achievement. He rose up from his humble beginning as a simple, unknown shepherd, the son of converts1, to become one of the most influential and beloved figures in Jewish History. But a deeper look at Rabbi Akiva’s story reveals an awesome message of endurance and hope, of willpower, and the nature and process of real change.
Softening a Heart of Stone
The big turning point in Rabbi Akiva’s life came as he was passing by a well. There he noticed a rock with a hole carved into it:
Once [Rabbi Akiva] came to the well and asked, “Who hewed this stone?” They said to him, “The water that consistently falls on it every day.” [Furthermore,] they said to him, “Akiva, have you not read, ‘Stones that water eroded?” Immediately R. Akiva judged a kal va-homer (an a fortiori argument) regarding himself: “If soft distorts hard, words of Torah, which are hard like iron, can, all the more so, hew into my heart which is flesh and blood.” Immediately he returned to learn Torah.2
From that day on, with encouragement of his wife Rochel3, Rabbi Akiva went to learn Torah, and he chose to start from the very beginning:
He went with his son directly to a children’s study hall. [Rabbi Akiva] said to [the teacher], “Rebbe, teach me Torah!” Rabbi Akiva took hold of one end of the tablet, and his son took hold of the other end. The teacher wrote down alef and bet for him, and he learned them; alef to tav, and he learned them; the book of Leviticus, and he learned it. He went on studying until he learned the whole Torah.4
Then he went and sat before Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua. “My masters,” he said, “reveal the reasoning (literally “flavor”) of Mishnah to me.” When they told him one halachah, he went off to sit by himself and think about it . This alef, he wondered, what was it written for? That bet – what was it written for? This teaching – what was it uttered for? He kept coming back, kept inquiring of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua, until he reduced his teachers to silence.5
Rabbi Akiva never gave up. He probed and pondered, and he asked questions persistently without embarrassment. The rest, as they say, is history. Rabbi Akiva eventually became the most prominent sage of his time. He was one of the greatest scholars of the Mishna, the foremost Kabbalist, and made vast contributions to Halacha. Even when he lost all but five of his 24,000 students to a plague, leaving the world desolate of Torah, he picked himself back up and started over again. This time, however, he focused his attention on the small, illustrious group of five students that included Judah bar Ilai, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Eleazar ben Shammua, Jose ben Halafta and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. This group was eventually able to restore the Torah to its full glory.6
Returning Again; the Real Greatness of Rabbi Akiva
All of this alone would be enough of a testament to Rabbi Akiva’s greatness, but there is more to the story.
Though Rabbi Akiva referred to himself as an “am ha’aretz,” an unlearned person7, several sources suggest that at least at some point during his youth he was fluent in the written Torah and kept mitzvot.8 Coming from the perspective that Rabbi Akiva already had a background in Torah, it sheds new light on his experience at the well. He wasn’t someone who knew absolutely nothing and now wanted to make a change mid-way through his life- that would have been impressive enough by itself. Instead, he was someone did know, someone who had once learned, yet for some reason had decided to leave the path of Torah and mitzvot. His heart later became hardened, and perhaps he had despaired that he would never be able to return, that true change was at that point out of his grasp.
What he learned at the well is that a Jew is never too far to return, but at the same time real change doesn’t happen over night. With every bit of Torah a person learns, with every single mitzvah a person does, with every ounce of ratzon a person has to come closer to HaShem, an impression is made on the heart. Even if that impression is microscopically small, it and its positive influence remain with the person forever.
But if Rabbi Akiva already knew some Torah, then why did he start learning from the very beginning like a child? Perhaps we can say that after the incident at the well, he began to see the world through new eyes, and his heart had begun to stir within him, calling him to return. But he knew that in order to remain focused on his spiritual goals, he had to start small. He had to re-learn and strengthen himself in the most basic concepts and do so with the hope and the emunah that every action no matter how seemingly insignificant was precious because it was bringing him closer, a small step closer, to himself and his spiritual potential.
The Miracle of Teshuva
Rav Shimshon Pinchus z”l used to teach that the biggest miracle that there is in this world is a person’s ability to change- to break his negative habits and character traits and return to HaShem and his true self. This miracle is greater than the splitting of the sea, greater than the Manna that our forefathers ate in the desert, and greater than all the other miracles that have been and will be. The strength, determination, and clarity that a person needs to break his evil inclination has a Divine Source as it says, “The [evil] inclination of a person gathers strength every day, and desires to kill him… and if not for the fact that G-d helps him, he would not be able to overcome it.”9
The fact that Rabbi Akiva was able to accomplish so much in such a relatively short amount of time could be an illustration of HaShem’s declaration to us: “My children, open for Me an opening of teshuva like the eye of a needle, and I will open for you openings big enough for wagons and carriages to pass through.”10
When a person resolves to make the long, hard journey ahead, HaShem’s abundant mercy is arouse. Often it’s that first small step towards truth that opens doors which were previously closed or sends a sudden, unexpected surge of strength and clarity. For every bit of effort a person makes in an attempt to come closer to HaShem, HaShem responds with favor and assistance that is exponentially greater. As our Sages tell us: “The one who sanctifies himself a little, Heaven helps to sanctify him a lot.”11
Chanukah is a time of miracles- the triumph of the weak over the strong, the few over the many, and the truth over falsehood. Our Sages say that the source of the Chanukah light is Or HaGanuz -the “hidden light” with which HaShem created the world. But, Or HaGanuz is also the pure light of truth that each one of us has inside, the Pintele Yid (the Jewish Spark) that can never be extinguished. It is this Divine light that gives us the strength and clarity to believe, to persevere, to embrace positive change, and that is the greatest miracle of all.
- Talmud Brachos 27b
- Avos D’Rabbi Nosson 6:2
- Kesubbos 62b
- Avos D’Rabbi Nosson 6:2
- Yevamos 62b
- Pesachim 49b
- For example, see the Chida’s commentary on Avos D’Rabbi Nosson 6:2, and the Talmud Yerushalmi Pesachim 42a
- Kiddushin 30B
- Midrash Shir HaShirim 5:2
- Yoma 39a