Sunday, November 19, 2006

R. Akiva and the Anyone-Can-Do-It Syndrome

I don't know why (maybe something to do with the comments to this post from Shira), but I spent a good portion of Shabbat thinking about a short animated segment on one of the Shalom Sesame videos and whether the message it contained was actually true.

The animated story is a cute, child-appropriate rendition of the point at which not-yet-Rabbi Akiva comes to the conclusion that if water can bore through a rock, certainly Torah can bore through his heart. And at what most people then would consider an "advanced" age, he heads off to learn.

The message is pretty clear and quite inspirational: if Rabbi Akiva can go from an illiterate middle-aged shepherd to an exceptional Torah scholar, then you, too, can do whatever you set your mind to do.

I like the message. I want my kids to believe that they can live up to their full potential. I want them to believe that they can overcome all challenges and barriers. I want to believe that anyone who wants to learn Torah can.

This was the operating assumption back in R. Akiva's day. There was a certain, shall we say, hierarchy of status. Torah scholars were up there; those who couldn't even read or write were... not. And sad to say, there was a bit of condescension as a result.

Really sad to say, there still is. A lot.

But I've come to understand that there's a flaw in that assumption. Because it takes more than just really wanting it. It takes more than being willing to pack up and leave everything and everyone (including an incredibly supportive wife) for years at a time. It takes more than a burning knowledge that you will die if you don't learn.

These days, it takes financial means that too often are in direct conflict with paying the rent or mortgage. It takes time away from the precious little we already treasure with family. It requires that someone else be available to care for children. It assumes that you live in a place where there is opportunity, or that you have the means to relocate. It assumes that whatever physical or emotional disabilities you have, they can be overcome. And in most communities where time, finances, opportunity, child care, and a place to live are taken care of, it also requires that you be male.

I'm not saying that there aren't viable alternatives. I'm saying that it's more complex than "If Rabbi Akiva can do it, anyone can do it."

I'm not even convinced R. Akiva could have done it without support and encouragement. Support from his wife. Encouragement from his teachers. We - none of us - can excel in a vacuum. It takes networking. It takes encouragement. It takes interdependence.

When the teacher delights in being taught by the student, there is encouragement.
When the student receives constructive and helpful feedback, there is support.
When teacher and student come to see themselves as both teachers and students, there is interdependence.

I wouldn't change the animated story, or the message of encouragement it has for children. But I am acutely aware that without us working together, supporting and encouraging each other, none of us will succeed. And only the truly ignorant would think they could do it alone.

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