Parashat Yitro: That Little Extra Push
Parashat Yitro tells of Ma’amad Har Sinai, God’s revelation to Am Yisrael at Mount Sinai, during which Moshe Rabbenu ascended to the top of the mountain to receive the Torah.
The Sages in the Midrash and Talmud provide us with additional information concerning this seminal event, including a remarkable incident that occurred when Moshe ascended the mountain. The Midrash relates that God showed Moshe a scene from the distant future – a great Rabbi teaching a Torah class to his students. The concepts this Rabbi taught were so deep and profound, that even Moshe Rabbenu could not understand the material. As it turns out, the Rabbi in this prophetic image shown to Moshe was none other than Rabbi Akiba, one of the greatest and most influential of the Tanna’im (Sages of the Mishnaic period).
Realizing that he could not understand Rabbi Akiba’s lecture, Moshe decided that he was unworthy to receive the Torah. He told the Almighty that Rabbi Akiba, and not he, should be the one chosen to receive the Torah from God and transmit it to Am Yisrael. God, however, informed Moshe that he was chosen for this exalted role.
This extraordinary account gives us an opportunity to learn about and draw inspiration from Rabbi Akiba, one of the most heroic and important figures in Jewish history. He was a man of unparalleled genius, to the point where, as we have seen, even Moshe Rabbenu could not fully understand his lecture. Additionally, as the Talmud relates, he had 24,000 students – far more than any Torah educator at any point in history. Tragically, all those thousands of students perished in a deadly plague. Rabbi Akiba, remarkably, did not despair, even after suffering such a devastating calamity. He found five qualified students and taught them, and they became the pillars of our Torah tradition.
But even more fascinating than Rabbi Akiba’s role as a leading Sage is the humble beginnings from which he came. Rabbi Akiba was ignorant for many years. He never had a Torah education, and he was a simple shepherd working for a wealthy man named Kalba Sabua. But Rabbi Akiba was not only ignorant, he actually despised Torah scholars. He himself attested that before he enrolled in yeshiva and began to learn, he felt the urge to bite Rabbis! This was the extent of the animosity he harbored toward Torah and its scholars.
How is it possible that a person with such contempt for Torah could emerge as one of the greatest Sages of all time?
The Arizal (Rabbi Yishak Luria of Safed, 1534-1572) explained that undoubtedly, Rabbi Akiba was endowed with a special soul, which allowed him to attain such towering heights of Torah knowledge and piety. For many years, however, until age 40, his greatness was blocked; there were "shells" covering his sacred soul. His soul resembled a brilliant and powerful light which was covered by many thick layers of material which blocked the light from shining and illuminating its surroundings. When Rabbi Akiba married his wife, Rahel, she urged him to enroll in yeshiva and pursue a Torah education, even though he was already 40 years old and could not even read Hebrew. That little push that his wife gave him was able to open the clogged drain, so-to-speak. Once he began putting in the effort, the thick layers that obstructed his powerful soul were gradually removed. Soon enough, the power of his soul was able to burst forth in full force, propelling him to such great heights that even Moshe Rabbenu could not understand his lecture.
Although the Arizal’s insight certainly relates to deep concepts of Kabbalah, it also contains a powerful message that applies directly to each and every one of us. If Rabbi Akiba, who wanted to bite Torah scholars, was endowed with a special soul with a potential for unparalleled greatness, then it is certainly possible that each of us, too, is granted such lofty potential. We might not feel naturally driven toward spiritual greatness, but this potential may very well be within us. Like Rabbi Akiba, we just need that extra little push to get us moving, to propel us forward, and then the "Kelipot" ("shells") fall away and we can reach our potential. It would be a terrible mistake to resign ourselves to mediocrity and assume that we are destined to achieve nothing more. We never know what our ceiling is until we make the effort. We must give ourselves that extra push, try just a bit harder, invest just a bit more effort, and we will then find ourselves able to achieve far more than we ever imagined possible.