The main question for this week is: When is it too late?
A little story to set the scene:
The year: Around 90 CE, a decade after the destruction of Jerusalem.
The location: Lod, Israel.
There is this man named Mr. Kalva-Savua. He's a wealthy businessman.
Much of his wealth is in livestock.
He has a daughter named Rachel. She comes of age and it's time to find her a husband.
But she rejects every match suggested to her (no, Judaism never allowed parents to coerce their children into a marriage).
"What's wrong with these men you keep rejecting?" we can imagine her mother saying. "They are scholars. They come from good families!"
Rachel isn't impressed by breeding. She has something entirely different in mind.
"I want to marry Akiva."
"Akiva the shepherd."
"Akiva the shepherd? On our staff? Are you out of your mind? If you married someone with learning but no breeding, that we'd understand. If you married someone with breeding but no learning, that we'd understand. But he has neither learning nor breeding! How could you even consider an illiterate shepherd who comes from a poor, illiterate family? What are you thinking?"
"I see something in him. I see greatness in him. He just needs the right woman to help him bring it out."
"You are out of your mind. Do not think about it any more. And should you go and marry him behind our backs, you will be disinherited. Keep that in mind!"
But she does.
And so do they.
And Rachel and Akiva live in poverty.
They sleep on straw.
But they are happy.
Once, someone comes to the door asking for charity.
Akiva looks at him and thinks, "He has even less than we do," and gives the beggar their straw.
That's the kind of man he is.
After some time, Rachel says to him, "I want to remind you that I only married you on condition that you go study. Now it's time to go. By my estimate, it's going to take you twelve years, so I don't want you to return for twelve years. Got that?"
So off he goes....to kindergarten.
There he is sitting with the five-year-olds. Feeling out of place.
"What am I doing here in kindergarten? I'm a forty-year-old man! I feel like such a chump!"
He goes outside for some fresh air. "I can't take it in there! I'm a big oaf. But I can't go home, Rachel will clobber me, and besides, I promised. Oy!"
He sits down by a stream, watching the water trickle, listening to it gurgle.
At a certain spot the water has carved out a niche in a rock.
"How could that happen? Water is soft, the rock is hard...."
Suddenly inspiration hits him like a splash of water. "If soft water could make a dent in a hard rock, surely the Torah, which is like fire, could make a dent in my hard heart!"
So he gets himself up and goes back to kindergarten.
Flash forward twelve years. Akiva returns home. Before he opens the door, he overhears Rachel in the garden talking to a neighbor.
The neighbor says, "You're living like a widow! Your husband has been gone for twelve years!"
"If he'd listen to me, he'd go for another twelve years!"
"Aha!" he decides on the spot, "She's giving me permission!" He about-faces and returns to the yeshiva.
Twelve years later he returns a second time.
This time he has 24 thousand students with him. He has become the greatest sage in Israel.
When he arrives to town, everyone turns out to see the great Rebbe Akiva.
Rachel pushes her way through the crowd to find her husband.
She is in rags and his students try to shield him from her.
"Leave her be! Every one of you owes all of your Torah to her!"
Questions for your table:
When is it too late to study?
When is it too late to change careers?
When is it too late to change your life?
PS - Read more about Rabbi Akiva - including what his father-in-law did when he found out whom he'd become, click here or here.
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PPPPS - the photo above is Rabbi Akiva's tomb in Tiberius.