Rabbi Akiva: Before and After

Rabbi Akiva said of himself that before he learned Torah hesaid, “give me a Talmid Chacham and I will bite him like a donkey!”When sked, “Why not like a dog?” he answered: “A dog’s bites tears the flesh, but a donkey’s bites breaks the bones.”( Pesachim, 49b).
[BTW the animal imagery is interesting because there is the famous story of R’ Akiva with the donkey, rooster, and candle. Also his rather unwilling father-in-law’s name was Kalva Savua—a reference to a dog there.]
But I’ve been thinking about this point. I am sure I have come across a Maharal that explains the chamor [donkey] further as the embodiment of chomer, which is antithetical to the spiritual/intellectual. As an am ha’aretz, Akiva (not yet R’) was immersed in a physical existence. Yet, still to have such antipathy to the talmid chacham that he would wish to bite him all the way down to the bone would seem as something one would never expect any person to sink to. So I have in the past thought of this R’ Akiva statement as a reflection of the idea the Maharal conveys. Who could imagine any Jew having such hatred for another Jew to wish to crush his bones? It seems impossible. But now I know it is possible. I have encountered just such an individual (happily, not in person).
You should not think that R’ Akiva thought of himself as a Reform Jew. While he was not yet a talmid chacham, he would still have been called a shomer Shabbos Jew. He may well have contributed to his local shul, etc. But he had cut himself off from Torah learning and resented those who had it. Once R’ Akiva became the Gadol that he was, he became famous for saying, “Vehavta lereacha kamocha; zeh klal gadol baTorah.” [Love your neighbor as yourself; this is a major rule or premise in the Torah.] Only his saying is taught to children, even though other rabbis offered other opinions, citing other phrases from Tanach as klal gadol mizeh. I would suggest that it is not only that the “Golden Rule,” as it is sometimes called is key to what Torah is about but that learning Torah is key to the ability to exercise it. R’ Akiva confessed that as an am ha’aretz, he was, in fact, consumed with a raging hatred toward those in possession of Torah he lacked.

Once he became a talmid chacham himself, he recognized that loving one’s neighbor is the ultimate achievement. And it is only achievable to someone so immersed in Torah that he recognizes himself not as an individual apart but as part of the collective of klal Yisrael. As the Maharal says, the Torah was given not to a group of individual but the single, united entity of klal Yisrael. If one cuts himself off from Torah and chooses to remain in ignorance, he is also cutting himself off from the interconnectedness to others that is only possible through full participation in the teachings shared by the people. An am ha’aretz alienates himself from Torah teachings and so poses a threat to the very essence—and etzem [bone] also refers to essence—of what ultimately binds Jews together as one.

Related post: http://kallahmagazine.blogspot.com/2008/05/quality-of-infinity-and-pardes.html


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