D'var Torah for Shavuot
2003Shavuot marks the holiday on which the Jewish people received the Torah. On Shavuot there is a widespread tradition to stay awake all night learning Torah. As we prepare to metaphorically receive the Torah during the morning's Torah reading we display our love for the Torah and our excitement to be able to study it. The following D'var Torah looks at two seemingly unrelated passages from Avot De-Rabbi Natan, a minor tractate of the Talmud that elaborates on many of the passages found in the more popular Pirkei Avot.
Avot De-Rabbi Natan, Chapter 2
He shattered the tablets -- This is one of three things that Moses did of his own accord and his opinion was in accordance with that of the Lord.
When Moses went up to the Heavens to receive the Torah...he took them, descended the mountain, and was elated. When he saw the abominable offense that the Children of Israel had committed by constructing the golden calf, he said to himself: "How can I give them the tablets -- I will obligate them in all of the commandments and make them deserving of death, for it says in the Ten Commandments, "You shall have no other gods besides Me" (Exodus 20:4). Moses turned away. The 70 elders saw him and ran after him. Moses held one end of the tablets, and the elders held the other end. Moses' strength prevailed over all of them, as it says, "for all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel" (Deuteronomy 34:12). Moses looked at the tablets and saw that the writing had flown off of them. He said, "How can I give the Children of Israel tablets with nothing on them? Rather, I will take hold of them and break them, as it says, "I gripped the two tablets and flung them away with both my hands, smashing them before your eyes" (Deuteronomy 9:17).
Your Avot De-Rabbi Natan Navigator
1. Why did Moses act on his own accord? What does it mean that his opinion was in accordance with God's?
2. Why does Moses not want to give the Children of Israel the tablets?
3. Why do the elders chase after Moses?
4. Why did the writing fly off the tablets?
5. Why does Moses decide to break the tablets? Do you think he was right?
Avot De-Rabbi Natan, Chapter 6
What was the beginning of Rabbi Akiva? At age 40 he had not learned anything. One time he was standing at the mouth of a well, and asked "Who hollowed out this rock?" They answered him, "Was it not the water that constantly falls on it?" They further said, "Akiva, are you not familiar with the verse "Water wears away stone..." (Job 14:19). Rabbi Akiva immediately made the following logical deduction to himself: "Just as the soft [water] shaped the hard [stone], words of Torah -- which are as hard as iron -- all the more so they will shape my heart which is but flesh and blood."
He immediately went to learn Torah. He went with his son, and they both sat in front of a teacher of young students. Rabbi Akiva said, "My master, teacher me Torah." Rabbi Akiva held one end of a tablet, and his son held the other end. The teacher wrote the letters aleph, bet, and Rabbi Akiva learned them. Aleph, tav and Rabbi Akiva learned them... He continued until he had learned the entire Torah, and then sat before Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua. He said to them, "My Masters open for me the taste of the Mishnah. Once they told him one law, he went and sat by himself, pondering: "Why was this [letter] aleph written; why was this [letter] bet written; why was this thing said?" He went back and asked them, and showed them up with his words. Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said, I will give a parable to what this matter is similar: It is like a stone cutter who was chiseling from mountains. One time he took his ax, sat upon a mountain and began cutting away small pieces of stone. People came up to him and asked, "What are you doing?" He replied, "I am uprooting them and placing them in the Jordan River." They said, "You will never be able to uproot the entire mountain." The stone cutter continued until he came upon a large rock. He got underneath it, uprooted it and placed it in the Jordan. He said to the rock, "Your place is not here [on the mountain], but here [in the river]." This is what Rabbi Akiva did to Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua. Rabbi Tarfon said to him: "Akiva, about you the verse says, 'He dams up he sources of the stream so that hidden things may be brought to light' (Job 28:11) -- Rabbi Akiva brought to light things that are hidden from [other] people."
Your Avot De-Rabbi Natan Navigator, Again
1. Why is the Mishnah concerned with Rabbi Akiva's beginning?
2. Does Rabbi Akiva's logical deduction make sense to you? Why or why not?
3. Why does Rabbi Akiva go to learn with his son?
4. Why is Rabbi Akiva able to bring to light things that were hidden?
5. Compare the imagery of both passages.
On the surface these two texts are completely unrelated. Yet if we delve deeper they can be combined to teach a powerful lesson about learning Torah. The imagery of Moses and the sages grabbing separate ends of the tablets is almost identical to the image of Rabbi Akiva and his son grabbing separate ends of a tablet to begin their schooling. The only difference in the two images is that in the first image of Moses and the scholars the letters are flying off of the tablets as they wrestle with each other. Rabbi Akiva and his son begin with a blank tablet, which ends up being full of letters and words. It is as if hundreds of generations later Rabbi Akiva is making amends for the tragic events that led to the shattering of the first set of tablets.
A close analysis of Rabbi Akiva's beginning may offer insight into the attitude and frame of mind necessary to properly engage in Torah study. The first lesson that Rabbi Akiva teaches us is that it is never too late to begin learning Torah. At the age of 40 he knew absolutely nothing, yet went on to become one of the greatest Rabbis and teachers our tradition has ever known. The fact that someone was not brought up with a rich Jewish education or background does not exclude them from fully participating and contributing to Jewish life. Rabbi Akiva further demonstrates the importance of not being ashamed or to admit that you don't know something. I can't think of a more embarrassing situation than for a forty year old man to attend the same Nursery school class as his son. We are all familiar with the adage, "there is no such thing as stupid questions." Rabbi Akiva truly embodies and teaches the lesson of this saying. A final lesson that Rabbi Akiva teaches is the value of one's life experiences. Perhaps Rabbi Akiva brought to light previously unknown things because he was able to draw from his life experiences. He was able to offer new insights because he had a unique learning style and unique life experiences from which to draw.
This Shavuot, as we prepare to receive the Torah anew, and reexamine our relationship with the Torah, we should draw on the message of Rabbi Akiva.
Prepared by Elliot Kaplowitz, Iyyun Fellow, Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning.
Learn about the holiday of Shavuot.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Shavuot at MyJewishLearning.com.