Living our dreams: Lessons from Rabbi Akiva’s wife, Rachel

I love a strong female Jewish character from our tradition. There are SO many of them, from the matriarchs to Ruth (also a convert) to Golda Meir.

Interesting how we don’t afford women basic rights, religiously or otherwise. Even though they are our equals, completely. Hashem will be “angry” if a woman puts on tefillin? I don’t think so, but I’m no expert. Hashem will be “angry” if people oppress His daughters by holding them back because us men need to dominate things? Probably, but I’m no expert.

But I digress. Let us return to the business at hand.

Why don’t we live out our dreams, vision, goals? Because we’re afraid of what people will think of us (certainly safe to say that this isn’t the only reason, but it’s an important reason for our “discussion” here.

Rachel, the wife/life partner/soul mate of Rabbi Akiva had a beautiful and empowering teaching that she shared with her husband (often seen as one of our absolute greatest teachers). Rabbi Akiva himself is known for many things – most popularly that he only started to learn Torah when he was 40. He had to learn the aleph bet in a first grade class room among 5 and 6 year-olds.

He was terrified and embarrassed by this. What would people think? A 40 year old man learning with children and knowing as much as them. A humbling and scary endeavor. He couldn’t bring himself to do it and he told this to his wife (in Talmudic times – the better half who took care of every household matter and gave their husbands advice). Think about that for a moment – the greatest teachers in history went to their wives to ask them questions and get advice. Why, you might ask?

Because they were incredibly wise and knew things that their husbands didn’t. They were human beings seen as equals, but we can’t give our mothers, sisters, wives an aliyah to the Torah (I know that it’s not so simple and there are Halachic issues – the way we do things. But are there? I’m no expert. Oy, were getting off track. But alas, everything is Torah is connected.

Back to the story – Rabbi Akiva (before he was a Rabbi) told his wife that he couldn’t do it. Rachel told him (demanded/asked him nicely, as wives do) to take their donkey to the market with some dirt on its back and a flower in that dirt. Akiva didn’t know why this would help, but he listened to his wife (as every man should – because she was his wife and a human being and very very wise).

He took the donkey to the market and was created with taunts and jeers. “Look at Akiva and that crazy donkey! What is he doing?” He was humiliated and he ran home. He told Rachel what had transpired and she told him to go back the next day. He resisted, but eventually gave in because he loved her and knew how wise she was. He took the donkey back a second day and there were less taunts and harsh words, but still it was fairly humiliating.

He returned home, frustrated with his wife for making him do that. She told him to do it one final time.

He returned with his tail between his legs (both Akiva and the flowered donkey).

What was he greeted with (you might ask)?

“Hi Akiva!” and nothing else. They were used to it.

Lesson: people get used to things and fairy quickly (sometimes not so quickly, but eventually).

Practical lesson: Live your dreams. Chase your dreams and find them. If you want to be a fashion designer, do it! If you love a man or a woman, and/or have a “queer” identity, go after it! No shame. People will eventually get used to it.

Dreams of opening a falafel shop? Do it. Imagine if everyone went after their dreams without caring about how they would be perceived by others. A much happier and fulfilled world indeed.

If Akiva hadn’t listened to his wife, there would be no Rabbi Akiva. Our tradition is alive and so well because of individuals and communities going after what they believed in regardless of public opinion.

Who cares about public opinion? Most people.

Who should? Pew and other public opinion polls.

Too many dreams have been crushed because we’re afraid to disappoint others or embarrass ourselves. We deserve better.

I’ll leave you with my most favorite quote:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” ~ Marianne Williamson

Live your dreams!

About the Author
Originally from Pittsburgh. Living in NYC. Organizing a Hebrew speaking Cafe Ivrit twice a month. Working in the Jewish non-profit world and advocating for Israel whenever possible.
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