What we can learn from a gentle shepherd in ancient Israel, the mother of an ill child, and an executive who put job before family.
by Edythe Mencher
In the early days of the Common Era, there lived a man named Akiva who spent his days tending the sheep of his rich and harsh master. Akiva was ashamed of his poverty and his ignorance--at the age of 40 he could not even write his name. Yet he had no idea of how he might improve himself. So despite his dissatisfaction, he devoted himself to the care of his master's sheep.
Rachel, the daughter of Akiva's master, would often go down to the fields to visit the gentle shepherd. She listened as he spoke of his longings. One day she professed her love for him. "I will marry you," she said, "if you escape the prison of your ignorance through the study of Torah."
Akiva was deeply moved by Rachel's love. And yet, her love was insufficient to raise his confidence enough to change his ways.
Then, one day, as he and Rachel walked together, Akiva noticed an enlarged hole in a rock he'd seen many times before. The hole had been bored by drops of water falling upon the rock continuously over time. Turning to Rachel, Akiva said, "If something as soft as drops of water can penetrate such a hard rock, surely my heart can be penetrated by words of learning" (Avot D'Rabbi Natan, chapter 6).
Only then did Akiva allow Rachel to teach him to read.
Over time, Akiva began to realize his potential. He studied earnestly. Soon he and Rachel married and had children. Rachel supported the family while he traveled far and wide to learn from Israel's wisest teachers. Eventually he became a scholar in his own right, a teacher renowned and beloved for his wisdom and his qualities of gratitude and forgiveness.
Akiva did not move from self-pity to self-actualization overnight. He needed to become aware--to realize that the true cause of his unhappiness was not having been born into a poor family, or the long hours he spent toiling for a man who demonstrated little appreciation of his efforts--but his own sense of hopelessness and resignation. While he was bolstered by Rachel's conviction that he could escape his unhappy condition, something else was needed, something that had been there all along. When Akiva noticed the rock penetrated by drops of water, he drew a parallel to his own life and realized that change is a gradual and systematic process. This realization, combined with Rachel's loving encouragement, led to his transformation from shepherd to scholar.
Like Akiva, we too can overcome the stumbling blocks that may hold us back.
Like Akiva, we first need to desire change. We may need to ask ourselves hard questions: "In what ways do I want my life to be different?" "What am I doing that is holding me back?"
Also following Akiva's example, we can welcome someone to help us on our quest. Jewish tradition teaches us that just as a captive cannot free himself but can only be freed by someone not similarly bound, few if any of us can transform ourselves alone. Someone must fortify our self-confidence; someone must be able to envision us as we would wish to be; someone must give us the sense that we will not be alone as we take the step of leaving the familiar behind and stepping into a new way of being. Perhaps this someone is a person currently in our lives--a rabbi, a teacher, a parent, a spouse, a sibling, a friend, or a therapist--or a person who is no longer alive or part of our lives but who believed in us and cared deeply about the trait or quality we wish to make our own. For some of us this sense of abiding presence comes from faith in God. Each Shabbat we sing "Adon Olam," which reminds us "Adonai li lo ira"--"The Eternal is with me; I will not fear."
And, like Akiva, we need to take notice of phenomena in the world which signify that seemingly impossible changes can really occur. The "proof" might be the radiant smile of a fellow congregant who can now participate actively in services because a ramp has been installed by the bimah. Perhaps it's remembering how something we once believed we could never do is now second nature to us. Or it might be taking notice of a tenacious plant that has managed to sprout up in the cracks between paving stones, reminding us that the will to live and grow can triumph in even the most inhospitable places.
Then comes perhaps the most difficult stage: the hard work, over time, of achieving the sought-after change. Undoing habitual ways of functioning requires making ourselves constantly conscious of behaviors that have long been carried out on "automatic pilot." This can be an exhausting, stilted, and sometimes burdensome process. We may find ourselves acutely self-conscious and unable to act spontaneously--and yet we must find the strength to continue on. The key is to adopt practices that repeat the earlier steps: searching within ourselves to rediscover the desire for change; remaining alert to signs that reaffirm the idea that change is possible; and seeking out those who believe in us through support groups, a regular worship community, psychotherapy, and partnerships with others similarly invested in change.
The Story of Meg
It took a family crisis for Meg* to realize she had to change. She grew up in a lively home in which being positive and upbeat were rewarded and negate feelings avoided. Through most of her life, her positive outlook had served her well--she married a wonderful man and cheerfully tended to the needs of their two children. Even when her son was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, she remained upbeat, seeking out every possible treatment, confident he would be cured.
Yet without realizing it, Meg's compulsively positive attitude was having a negative affect on her family.
One day, her 12-year-old daughter Tamara came home complaining bitterly that she had not been chosen for the role she longed for in the Hebrew school play. Ever hopeful, Meg assured Tamara that if she practiced her acting and singing, she would be selected next time.
"You never admit the truth!" Tamara shouted in response. "I don't sing or act well enough to ever get the lead! And you never admit the truth about Jacob either! That he never really will get well and he will probably die!"
Meg grabbed Tamara's arm roughly. "Don't you ever say that!" she shouted. "Don't you give up on yourself, and don't you ever say that Jacob will die! Never let yourself have that thought and never let me hear it!"
Tamara jerked her arm from her mother's grip and ran away in tears.
Although she rarely cried, Meg found herself sobbing, deeply regretting having been so harsh with her daughter.
Later that evening, she told Fred of her worries concerning Tamara's pessimism. How, she asked her husband, could she restore Tamara's sense of hopefulness about her own talents and Jacob's ultimate recovery?
With a wry smile, the tears now streaming down his face, Fred responded, "But Tamara really isn't much of an actress, is she? It is disappointing and painful to face that you may not have been graced with the talent to get the applause you crave. Meg, I feel as if you won't hear anything at all about my discouragement either, and that makes me as lonely as Tamara. You are so busy being hopeful, you don't hear any of our pain. Tamara can't sing and Jacob really might not get well, and we need to help each other through this. Jacob must be so scared because he knows his illness is life threatening, and Tamara is certainly scared that we won't be there for Jacob because we never admit the truth."
At first Meg reacted defensively and indignantly, pointing out all the ways she had always been there for Tamara and Fred. But then, for the first time, Meg began to realize there might be something about her character that needed to change. Paradoxically, her habitual optimism was having the opposite effect of what she intended. She would need to become more honest and genuine to be truly helpful to her family.
Many loving yet anguished conversations followed with Fred, their rabbi, a counselor and support group on the oncology unit, and caring fellow congregants who had coped with illnesses in their families. Over time, Meg began to voice her worry, sadness, and disappointments. As might be expected, her ever-optimistic parents were distressed by the changes in Meg; they even suggested that she might bring about a bad medical result if she expressed anything but hope. Yet Meg would not revert to her old ways, knowing now that if she did not face her own grief and fear, she would not be a source of comfort and strength to her children and husband.
Other changes ensued. Fred talked candidly with Tamara about her brother's illness and her disappointment with the Hebrew school play. He helped her to find a volunteer position through the synagogue's social action club tutoring children with learning difficulties. Valued by the children and staff, Tamara felt more confident and less angry.
Seeing how this small shift had changed Tamara's life gave Meg confidence that she too could continue to take incremental steps to transform her own life. Ultimately Meg came to see that illness, sadness, and even death are part of life and that love and connection can make these realities bearable.
The Story of Steve
Initially Steve* too saw no reason to change his ways. His diligent and unwavering commitment to his business had brought him personal fulfillment, advancement, and a sizeable paycheck. But his single-minded focus on ever-pressing business deadlines came at a high price: his family. He often arrived late for lunch dates with his wife and when it was his turn to pick up their daughter from evening activities. He apologized, but expected his family to understand his important business obligations. He also felt misunderstood. How could he perform his job, he reasoned, if they were always troubling him with minor complaints or imagined problems, such as his daughter Beth telling him that she was worried about getting a poor grade in English because the teacher didn't like her. "Instead of worrying about it now," he advised, "why don't you just wait to see what your grade will be?" And when his wife, Susan, told him her father needed a CAT-scan and he responded, "I'm sure everything will be fine," she had snapped back at him: "If the doctors knew everything would be fine, they wouldn't have ordered the test!"
Only after Beth failed English and Susan's father ended up in the intensive care unit did Steve realize he had failed to be there for his family. While over-achieving at the office, he was underachieving at home.
Soon after, Steve joined his wife in an evening adult education class at their synagogue. There he was introduced to Martin Buber's teaching that the holiest of moments in a relationship are those in which we fully recognize others for their essential humanity rather than for how they serve our needs. These rare and difficult moments of meaningful meeting--moments when we convey to another human being our sense of his/her uniqueness, worth, and preciousness--are also the ones that most enrich our lives.
With this new understanding, Steve became more attuned to the needs of his wife and daughter. He reorganized his schedule to make it more compatible with his family's, a move that at first made him feel less autonomous, even less grown up. Still, he listened as Susan made clear that she wanted him to show up on time and to listen to her concerns because she valued his companionship and his insights, and not because she wished to control him. She reminded him of the ways in which they had been best friends in the past and told him how much she missed him. He also tried to be more present for Beth, and as she came to feel he was really listening, Steve found she was complaining less and sharing feelings and ideas more. Seeing how his actions caused positive changes in his daughter then strength-
* These names have been changed to preserve anonymity.
Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher is assistant director of the URJ Department of Jewish Family Concerns and a licensed clinical social worker.