Akiva was a poor shepherd. All he’d ever known was shepherding and it was a serene and tranquil life. His parents had been too poor to provide him with even the most basic Jewish education, and he remained illiterate for the first forty years of his existence in this world. It had already been many years since he’d resigned himself to staying that way throughout his life. He knew that he just didn’t have the head to learn anything.
One day, he noticed water dripping down from an adjacent river. Drop by drop, it had steadily caused a small indentation in the rock beneath after years of constant pressure. Suddenly, Akiva jumped up from his spiritual slumber.
“If water can dent a rock with never-ceasing tiny drops, then the holy drops of Torah can eventually dent even my impenetrable head!”
With that, Akiva went off to share his revelation with his wife, Rachel. An incredibly righteous woman, who had seen his potential from the moment she laid eyes on him, she suggested that he travel off to learn in yeshiva. He ended up spending 24 years there, eventually becoming one of the greatest Sages of all time, the famed ‘Rabbi Akiva.’
וּבַגְּבוּלִין כְּדֵי שֶׁתֶּאֱחוֹז כּוּ׳. מַאי רוּבָּן? אָמַר רַב: רוֹב כׇּל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד. וּשְׁמוּאֵל אָמַר: כְּדֵי שֶׁלֹּא יֹאמְרוּ ״הָבֵא עֵצִים וְנַנִּיחַ תַּחְתֵּיהֶן״. תָּנֵי רַב חִיָּיא לְסַיּוֹעֵיהּ לִשְׁמוּאֵל, כְּדֵי שֶׁתְּהֵא שַׁלְהֶבֶת עוֹלָה מֵאֵילֶיהָ וְלֹא שֶׁתְּהֵא שַׁלְהֶבֶת עוֹלָה עַל יְדֵי דָּבָר אַחֵר
In the outlying areas one may not light a fireplace on Shabbat eve at nightfall unless there is sufficient time for the fire to take hold in most of the fire. What is meant by most of it? Rav said: Most of each and every one of the branches. And Shmuel said: Sufficiently lit so that they will not say: Bring more branches and we will place them beneath the existing branches to accelerate their burning. Rav Chia taught to support Shmuel (from a halacha that was stated with regard to the Menorah): It must be lit to the point that the flame will ascend on its own and not that the flame will ascend due to something else.
A flame doesn’t always catch when it is first kindled. Sometimes you need to hold the match there for a little bit until the flame is strong enough to “ascend on its own.” But once it is secure as a flame, it is able to maintain its place in this world as well as give the appearance of seeking to detach itself and ascend. Where is it trying to go? The Kabbalists explain that, since the sun is the source of heat and light in this world, it is constantly striving to climb higher and attach itself to its source.
Fire is the closest physical form we have to a spiritual entity. Torah and mitzvos, of course, have their source in heaven and work in an analogous way. While they appear to exist in this world, they’re really reaching out to ascend to their source in the heavens. But just like a candle, the flame doesn’t always take hold immediately. Sometimes, it takes a little time to maintain the flame with the strength it needs to “ascend on its own.”
Sometimes we’re excited to learn Torah and do mitzvos. Other times, it all feels like such an effort. It can be tempting to give up and find something else to do. Why engage in an endeavour that you’re not passionate about or particularly good at?
The Baal Shem Tov teaches that such feelings are completely normal and happen to all of us. How do you overcome the temptation to quit? By pressing forward. Spiritual pursuits work the opposite way to earthly pursuits. In this world, the more you do something that you’re not enjoying, the more frustrated you become, and the more challenging it becomes to bother trying. Akiva probably would never have become Professor Akiva, because he lacked the innate intellectual capacity to achieve academic success.
By contrast, if you continue to apply yourself to spiritual pursuits, you will eventually succeed. Why is that? Because Torah and mitzvos have their source in the heavens. All you need to do is keep persevering until the flame is able to “ascend on its own” and then, lo and behold, the flame will come alive. Once kindled, the flame of Torah and mitzvos will work their magic and carry their bearer to the highest heights. Akiva could never have imagined that he would one day become Rabbi Akiva!
It’s especially challenging to stay spiritually motivated during these dark and challenging times. But when you feel like you just can’t muster the strength and desire to daven, learn the daf, or engage in charitable work, remember that all you need to do is persevere until the flame is kindled. Once you’ve reached that stage, the Torah and mitzvos will ascend on their own. May you always be victorious over the temptation to quit before you’ve even started and earn the merit to kindle an ever-ascending flame!