There must be something more, he thought to himself. Something more than this same old routine of getting up and going to work. There must be some meaning to all of this.
As he stared at a stone worn down by slowly dripping water, he was struck by the symbol. This hard rock was hollowed out by the slow drip of water. I too can change. My mind cannot be harder than this stone.
It was then, the Talmud tells us, that Akiva decided to join his son at the schoolhouse.
That one of our noblist and most cherished rabbinic figures was unschooled until the age of 40 is no accident. The reverberations of his experience continue to resonate.
Akiva was an adult when he enrolled in the Melton school of his day and began to study the alef-bet and basic Judaism. He went on to become a master all of Jewish thought. His message was that it’s never too late to begin to study.
The tales told of Rabbi Akiva’s life have all the magical archetypes that speak to our imagination. There was his arrogant degradation of Torah scholars before he himself became one. And his great love of his wife, Rachel, who sacrificed so that he should study. There is the portrait of him sitting together with his own son with a slate and chalk between them learning to write alef-bet. And there was greatness. For Akiva rose to a place where few have ever gone.
My father tells a powerful story. When he was at Yeshiva University, in the late 1930s, there was a young man there who had come to Yeshiva with very little Jewish background. Unlike his fellow students he was not yet an expert in Talmud nor even minimally knowledgeable in Torah. In fact he barely knew Hebrew. But something had ignited him — and here he was, determined to catch up. My father tells how Tzvi Brown would pursue the other college-aged young men doggedly — and beg them for an hour here and hour there to tutor him, to help him catch up.
My father, who was pretty new on the American scene, was intrigued with Tzvi Brown. So fascinating to him was this person who was passionately attracted to learning — and here in America yet! And so my father, who was busy trying to gain knowledge of English, tried to help him out. One evening they met in Tzvi’s dorm room. There my father saw quite an intriguing sight. On the wall was one of those posters with pictures of row after row of great sages and there in the middle was pasted a picture of Tzvi Brown. Underneath his picture were the words in capital letters: Why not Tzvi Brown? As I type these words tears come to my eyes. How magnificent, Why not Tzvi Brown? That is what he wanted desperately: to be a scholar, to be learned, to join the ranks of those throughout history who chose another path.
Tzvi Brown’s story does not have a happy ending; his quest for authentic study took him to Poland, from where he did not return. But the words on that poster live on. Why not Tzvi Brown? I think we all have a poster kind of like that in our minds somewhere; the seemingly unfeasible fantasy to realize the unique Jewish dream of becoming a learned Jew. Because that is the nature of the Jew and that is the nature of our study. There are so many books, so many ideas and so much to learn; yet so insurmountable?
God has gifted me. As a Melton teacher I think I’ve met Tzvi Brown. He comes in many varieties, male and female, young and old — people who have the Jewish dream to learn. I’ve taught Tzvi Brown, shown him the Tanach, siddur and prayer book. I’ve seen Tzvi Brown light Shabbat candles for the first time, make a seder and have an aliyah. I’ve spoken to Tzvi Brown many times about what it means to live a meaningful life of Jewish content and Jewish conversation. Tzvi Brown wanted to be a learned Jew; I think the dream of being a learning Jew may work better for each of us. To be a learning Jew is to invest in the relationship. It is to take the leap and to know that two hours a week of Jewish learning will change your life forever. It will not be easy but it will be the realization of your noblist dream.
Rivy Poupko Kletenik is Director of Jewish Education Services for the Jewish Education Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater and Seattle and, oh yes, teaches in the Melton Program of the Adult Learning Project. If you have not already registered for a Melton class or any of the other Adult Learning Project seminars, you may do so by calling Eric Schinfeld at 206-774-2244, or for further information, speak to Stacy Lawson at 206-774-2218.