Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Things Akiva Taught Me

In the summer of 1972 I returned from travels abroad to Binghamton, New York with the intention of studying Torah.  I had danced around with Jewish observance for a year or two; now I was prepared to make a commitment. To my great good fortune, Rabbi Baruch Akiva Greenberg was sitting there on the couch in Meir Abehsera's living room when I walked in.  He became my first serious teacher and remained an enormous influence in my life (mostly at a distance) over the next four decades.  Akiva's soul ascended from this world on Shabbos Parshas Emor 5752 - at this writing, just a few days ago.  This is my attempt to deal with the feelings.

In those early Binghamton days we had a small, informal, part-time mini-yeshiva that met for a few hours a day at Beth David Synagogue.  The core of the curriculum was Akiva's class on Chumash (Parshas Shmos) with Rashi's commentary.  There were a half-dozen or so of us, sometimes more when visitors passed through, with Hebrew skills that ranged from mediocre to non-existent.  Akiva's method was for each one of us to read and translate aloud every pasuk and every Rashi (in Rashi script, which was a whole other unfamiliar alphabet in itself.)  We would not move on to the next verse until everyone had said.  It took forever.  It tried our patience.  Improbably, we loved every minute of it, and we learned how to learn.

Before long we came to realize what astute Jewish educators all over the world who knew him know - that Akiva Greenberg was a master teacher.  More significantly, we came to see what the thousands of students whose lives he has enriched, and the thousands more who have been touched by those thousands, have seen.  That quality, that humanity, is something that cannot be so easily described. 

An old friend and former partner of mine once said that when he was around Akiva, he felt he was in the presence of greatness.  He had enough sense, of course, not to say that in Akiva's presence - he would not have gotten away with it.  Akiva was very adept at disarming anyone's tendency toward sanctimony, whether with a wink or smile that said (without saying) "cut the crap," or with his inimitable way of undercutting his own holiness with humor: "the only problem with going to the mikveh is you can't smoke your pipe in the mikveh…"

One of the earliest and most important pieces of advice he gave me was when I was preparing to marry, and trying to sort out the Torah approach to the sanctity of marital life vis-à-vis my generation's more casual attitudes. The books spoke a lot about kedushah - holiness.  Just what that meant was not so simple, I thought (and still think.)  Akiva offered a single sentence that was immediately pragmatic, but that also continues to deepen my understanding to this day.  He didn't need to repeat or reinforce what the books were saying; as usual, he saw what else needed to be said.  "Relax," he said, "and the kedushah will take care of itself."

Akiva was always exacting and precise in his singing and in his storytelling.  The niggun goes just so, without shortcuts; when a fal is supposed to be sung twice, you sing it twice before moving on to the next.  When a story the Tzemach Tzedek told about the Horadaker was heard from the Vizhnitzer, you say it over in their respective names.  He taught us that it matters that we get it right, that the legacy is transmitted without distortion or embellishment.

I even learned from the way he would bang on the table while singing or teaching a niggun.  A Modzitzer waltz would inevitably be accompanied by one firm klop of the left fist, followed by two gentle brush strokes of the open right hand.  What this conveyed about the appropriate balance of chesed and gevurah, kindness and severity, I cannot begin to explain.  I can however say with some certainty that when the Gershwin brothers wrote "I Got Rhythm" this was in large part what they had in mind.

Akiva's table was not a table, it was a spacetime transporter.  Shalosh Seudos would sometimes go hours past sunset and segue seamlessly into Melave Malka.  We danced with the Shpoler Zeide and got beaten up with the Rebbe Reb Zusia and ate soup with the spoon that the Maggid used.  And yet, with all the Chassidus and the mystique, his emphasis always returned to the simple, halachic nuts and bolts.  No matter how arcane the questions, the answers were down to earth.  What's the key to redemption?  Learn Kitzur Shulchan Aruch - the Abridged Code of Law - every day.  In English, because you need to not fool yourself. What should be my kavanah in Krias Shema - the meditative intention in proclaiming G-d's oneness?  Be sure to pronounce the verses correctly, with the appropriate spaces between the words.

Though he was not usually given to big philosophical pronouncements, Akiva once let slip a core motivating principle that I find myself remembering nearly every day of my life.  The highest purpose one can aspire to, he said, is to be able to relieve another person's suffering.  And yet, on other occasions he would quietly remind us of what a delicate thing that can be, how challenging it is to have genuine empathy and not jump the gun with facile, half-baked answers.  Matters of the heart, he would say, cannot be dictated.

A few other gems, in no particular order:

"Anyone can fast by not eating. The real trick is to be fasting while you're eating."

"It’s better to be in chutz l'aretz (the diaspora) wishing you were in Israel than to be in Israel wishing you were in chutz l'aretz."

"When I look at that bookshelf, the books scream at me, saying 'when?'"

Akiva loved old-fashioned comedy – the Marx brothers, Laurel and Hardy – and he availed himself often of the way laughter heals.  I don’t recall him ever referring to Woody Allen, but he epitomized one of Woody's famous lines: "90% of success is showing up."  Akiva modeled steadiness and consistency, but never preached it.  And he did not try to hide his personal pain, or his imperfection; he demonstrated his fortitude in facing it, and in rectifying it.  I cannot imagine anyone knowing him and not having gained strength of character.

Thinking back to that Chumash class back in the day, and about all the myriad yeshiva and college students in the ensuing decades who have sung his praises as the consummate educator, I ponder what it was that made him so.  It seems almost trivial to speak of patience as the key to his expertise as a teacher; but I keep coming back to that.  Not patience as a technique or a strategy.  Not even patience as a cultivated character trait.  It seems to me that Akiva's extraordinary patience as a teacher stemmed from two sources.  First, from love.  And secondly, from silence - from a quietude of mind rooted in the uppermost reaches of the soul. 

The Rebbe Rashab, in Hemshech Ayin Beis, explores the transcendent realm of Kesser (Crown).  He cites the great kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Kordovero's explanation that one meaning (among several) of the word Kesser is derived from a verse in Job: "katar li z'eir" - "wait for me a bit".  It's an expression of silent, patient waiting for a time when that which is not yet evident will be revealed.  It's a crown we wear when we rise above the neediness to know it all now, when we can detach from the details that don’t yet make sense, when we are able to hear the voice from beyond the veil that says, shaa - this is the way it wants to be, for now.  It’s a crown Akiva wore, and not just when he was teaching.

I imagine his patience is beginning to pay off just about now.  May he be an effective intercessor on all our behalf.

Hamakom yenachem eschem b'soch shaar aveilei Tzion v'Yerushalayim.

P.S…. Dear Akiva,
I'm sorry I didn’t write or visit more often.
I'm sorry I don't remember exactly how all the niggunim go.
I'm sorry I didn’t create more opportunities to make you laugh.
I'm sorry I couldn't heal your illness or take away your pain.
And even though I think I understand how and why you would purposely allow me the leeway to choose for myself how to respond when you'd suggest to me what to do, I'm sorry I didn't always listen.