Moshe and Rabbi Akiva: The Symbolic Relationship Between Two Great Leaders

What was R. Akiva’s beginning? They say he was forty years old and had not learned[i] anything. Once he came to the well and asked, “Who hewed this stone?” They said to him, “The water that consistently falls on it every day.” [Furthermore,] they said to him, “Akiva, have you not read, ‘Stones that water eroded?’”[ii] Immediately R. Akiva judged a kal va-homer[iii] regarding himself: “If soft distorts hard, words of Torah, which are hard like iron, can, all the more so, hew into my heart which is flesh and blood.” Immediately he returned to learn Torah.[iv]

This well-known story of how R. Akiva began his path toward leadership should seem familiar to us from an even better-known story; how Moshe Rabbeinu began his path toward leadership. A turning point in Moshe’s story occurs when he experiences a phenomenon in nature: the burning bush.[v] After this event, Moshe begins his path toward leadership. R. Akiva also begins his path toward leadership after experiencing a phenomenon in nature: the water eroding a rock. This similarity opens up several important questions: Are there other similarities? What are the key contrasts? And is the resemblance between the two stories intentional? Let us begin to answer these questions by first considering similar qualities of each individual story.

One similarity to consider is that both R. Akiva and Moshe started out in positions from which it appears unlikely that one can become a leader. Ramban points out that for much of Moshe’s life before the burning bush incident, he was a fugitive fleeing from Pharaoh for having killed an Egyptian taskmaster.[vi] Shemot 2:11 says, “Moshe grew up and went out to his brethren… he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brethren.” Focusing on the word “va-yi-gdal,” “grew up,” Ramban says that Moshe, having just reached maturity, was approximately twenty years old when he killed the Egyptian taskmaster. From the flow of the text it seems that Moshe fled from Egypt a short time later. But we know from Shemot 7:7 that Moshe was eighty years old when he stood before Pharaoh. This means that Moshe spent about sixty years running away from Pharaoh before witnessing the burning bush. During those sixty years he was likely sentenced to execution if he dared to come back to Egypt. If we had to guess at this point whom God might pick to lead the Israelite people out of Egypt, Moshe’s inability to even enter the land safely would put him far away from first choice as leader of the nation.

The same can definitely be said about R. Akiva. In R. Akiva’s time, the Torah scholars were among the main leaders of the Jewish people. As our opening quote from Avot de-Rabbi Natan indicates, R. Akiva had not learned any Torah before the age of forty. Pesahim 49b reports that he had the status of an am ha-arets (ignoramus in Torah matters) and, as R. Akiva himself said, he even hated the Torah scholars. Thus R. Akiva before his experience at the well, like Moshe before the burning bush, was certainly not in a position from which ascent to Jewish leadership seemed likely.

These similarities alone, while somewhat curious, only merit special attention in view of some sharp contrasts between R. Akiva and Moshe, contrasts that at times seem related.First, within the second similarity itself lies an important contrast:For Moshe we do not expect leadership because of the conditions in which he lived, whereas in R. Akiva’s case we do not expect it because of his personality. Moshe was in a difficult situation, but not because he had done anything wrong;[vii] R. Akiva, on the other hand, had serious personal shortcomings that lowered his potential to become a leader. He was an am ha-arets and hated the sages. In Pesahim 49b, R. Akiva says that when he was an am ha-arets he wanted to “bite [a sage] like a donkey.” The process that led him to leadership was actually one of tremendous character development.

 In fact, the long path R. Akiva travels signifies another key difference between him and Moshe Rabbeinu. After R. Akiva’s nature phenomenon he spends years learning and developing his own character before taking on a leadership role. Moshe jumps straight into leadership after being told by God to go to Egypt during his experience at the burning bush.

The differences between these two figures, both before and after their witness of a phenomenon in nature, underlie an important variance in their respective developments into leadership. For Moshe, the development is rather sudden and completely devoted to the purpose of leading the Israelite people out of Egypt. For R. Akiva, it is a long and gradual development completely devoted to self-improvement, through which he becomes so great a person that he becomes worthy of a leadership position.

Another important contrast presents itself within the phenomenon in nature experienced by each man. The first obvious difference between these experiences is that Moshe’s was supernatural whereas R. Akiva’s was natural. The bush burns without turning to ash and, through it, Moshe has a prophetic revelation from God. What R. Akiva witnesses, water eroding a rock, is an ordinary occurrence but it nonetheless surprises someone who is unfamiliar with it. Thus, although Moshe’s experience stands out for being miraculous, R. Akiva’s experience is also special in that it was unintuitive and unexpected.

These two experiences are also opposites of each other. A bush is a weak material made up of twigs and leaves, while fire is a strong and destructive force.  Thus Moshe sees a weak material being attacked by a strong force and withstanding it. A rock is a strong substance that is hard to break, while dripping water is a rather weak force that does not usually harm that which is strikes. R. Akiva sees a strong material being attacked by a weak force and not withstanding it.

            A final difference between these phenomena concerns the manner in which the men experienced them. Moshe had a more instructive experience in that his message from the burning bush, along with its mission, was told to him as he passively stood and listened. R. Akiva’s experience was more self-initiated in that he derived his message on his own.

Not only was Moshe’s call to action an instructive process, but the symbolism of the bush itself was also instructive. In Shemot 3:11-12, Moshe asks who he is that he should be fit for the task God is asking of him. God responds, “… For I shall be with you, and this is your sign that I have sent you.” Rashi explains that the words, “this is your sign,” convey to Moshe that the bush doing what God wants and not getting burned serves as a sign to Moshe that if he does God’s mission he, too, will not be harmed.[viii] Thus, the symbolism of the phenomenon in nature that Moshe witnessed had a message for him and that message was explained to him by God instead of Moshe deriving it himself.

R. Akiva had a more self-initiated, active experience. He definitely received a message from the erosion: Just as the water penetrates the rock, so too can Torah penetrate R. Akiva’s heart. But here R. Akiva derives his message himself through logical reasoning. R. Akiva was not told his lesson from the rock, but rather arrived at it himself. Moshe had the challenge of trust in God. R. Akiva, on the other hand, had to go through a tremendous self-improvement.

What made Moshe an unlikely candidate for leadership, namely being a fugitive, did not seem to reflect any character flaws, but it may have been cause for him to doubt his own capacity to become a leader. Throughout Moshe’s conversation with God at the burning bush, Moshe is hesitant to accept the mission. At many points in this conversation Moshe doubts he will be able to accomplish anything. He says, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should take the children of Israel out of Egypt,”[ix] “I am not a man of words,”[x] and his final plea, “Please, my Lord, send through whomever You will send!”[xi] In response, God reassures him that He will be a guide to Moshe through any problems that arise. As He says, “For I shall be with you”[xii] and “I shall be with your mouth and teach you what you should say.”[xiii] Thus, Moshe’s challenge is to trust that God will make things work out regardless of what situation in which Moshe finds himself.

This general theme of trust in God as Moshe’s challenge is expressed in the differences between his story and R. Akiva’s. Moshe’s experience in nature was miraculous, unlike R. Akiva’s. This was important because he needed to understand that, despite impossible odds, God can do anything and would always be able to protect him. Moshe saw a weak substance being attacked by a strong force and withstanding it. This serves as a metaphor for how he would be able to withstand anything that attacks him through God’s help, and how he could therefore trust God to protect him. Moshe’s experiences were instructive and not self-initiated like those of R. Akiva. His were more of a test of trust in God, since following instruction means trusting the instructor. After the burning bush he went straight to Egypt because his challenge, unlike R. Akiva’s, was not to go through any character development. Instead, his challenge was to do what God told him and trust that God would fulfill His promises despite the dangers involved in the mission.

For R. Akiva the challenge was to achieve a major change of character. He started out as an am ha-arets whom most people would not expect to end up anywhere near Torah scholarship. After his experience with the rock, R. Akiva does not go straight into leadership like Moshe. Instead he begins a long path of personal growth not even intended toward a position of leadership, but rather toward being a better person. After many years of self-improvement, he becomes so great that he can be considered a leader of the Jewish people.

The theme of R. Akiva’s challenge being one of difficult self-development also comes through in the differences between his story and Moshe’s. R. Akiva’a experience with the rock was not miraculous, but it was something unintuitive. If one did not know any better, his first guess might be that water will not break through a rock. Similarly, even though the challenges R. Akiva faced in changing himself were not impossible for him to overcome, it was unexpected that he would meet them. The idea of a strong substance being penetrated by a weak force over a long time conveys the message that a difficult task can be accomplished with great diligence. R. Akiva needed to realize that he could master the Torah through years of hard work and strong efforts on personal development. R. Akiva was more self-initiated in facing his challenges, both with deriving the message from the rock himself, and with the intense years of study that followed. This was important because character development is, arguably, most effective when people commit to it themselves.

A prominent Talmudic association of Moshe and R. Akiva is the story in Menahot 29b in which God anachronistically sends Moshe to one of R. Akiva’s classes. The Gemara there also relates how Moshe witnessed the brutal murder of R. Akiva:

[Moshe] said before Him, “Master of the Universe, You have shown me his Torah, now show me his reward.” [God] said to him, “Turn around and see what is behind you.” [Moshe] turned around and saw that people were weighing the flesh from [R. Akiva’s body] in the butcher’s meat market in order to sell it. [Moshe] said before him, “Master of the Universe! This is Torah and this is its reward?!” [God] said to him, “Quiet! This is part of My greater plan to which you are not privy.”[xiv]

Moshe’s response to seeing R. Akiva’s horrific death was one of serious puzzlement in regards to the question of theodicy. God’s response that Moshe must remain quiet and accept the way God has run the world, dovetails with the theme constructed above that Moshe’s main challenge was that of trust in God. Once again Moshe is in a situation that does not make sense to him, but is simply told by God to accept the divine decree and trust that God is justified for allowing this situation to happen.

 But R. Akiva’s reaction to his own death is very different. In Berakhot 61b, the Gemara relates that R. Akiva was executed during zeman keri’at Shema. He took this as an opportunity to recite the Shema one last time so that he could truly fulfill the words “love God… with all your soul.”[xv]

For R. Akiva, the main issue in his horrific death was not a question of trust in God, but rather how he could use the situation he is in to once again improve his worship of God. This is in line with R. Akiva’s general challenge being one of personal development, since he saw even his own horrific death as a chance to push that development further along.

 The Gemara thus describes God as interacting with these two figures according to their different challenges in relation to the same tragedy of R. Akiva’s death.[xvi] From Moshe, He demands trust. For Rabbi Akiva, He has him killed at the time for the recital of Shema so that R. Akiva can have one last opportunity to improve his personality as one completely committed to God. By juxtaposing Moshe and R. Akiva in the same story and presenting their different reactions, the Gemara in Menahot highlights the connection between Moshe and R. Akiva and their differences as presented above.

Yishai Kanter is a senior at YC majoring in Physics.

[i]The translation “learned” here might not be exact. The Hebrew word, shanah,  could also mean “learned again” or “reviewed” (see Berakhot 18a). Also, the end of this passage indicates that R. Akiva “returned,” rather than “started” to learn Torah. Nonetheless, the fact that elsewhere in the Talmud he is said to have been an am ha-arets (Pesahim 49b) demonstrates that he was severely lacking in Torah knowledge, even if had been exposed to it previously.

[ii] Iyyov 14:19.

[iii] A kal va-homer, also known as an a fortiori argument, is a type of logical formula. It dictates that if one thing is taken as a given, then this same thing is assumed to also be true in a situation where it is generally more likely to be true.

[iv] Avot de-Rabbi Natan, chapter 6, translation mine. All translations to follow are from Artscroll, with minor modifications.

[v] Shemot 3:1-4:17.

[vi] Ramban to Shemot 2:23, s.v. va-ye-hi.

[vii]It is true that Moshe was exiled for killing an Egyptian taskmaster. One might contend that this was an immoral act of murder because the Egyptian did not deserve that strict of a punishment. One could then argue that Moshe was disqualified to be a leader at this stage of his life on moral grounds, just like R. Akiva. However, I do not think that that is a reasonable consideration for two reasons. The first is that we can at least sympathize with, if not justify, what he did to the Egyptian taskmaster in defense of the abused Israelite slave. Also, the Torah itself does not reprimand Moshe for committing murder. Thus, it would seem that Moshe did not actually do anything wrong, and this factor should not be a consideration.

[viii] Rashi to Shemot 3:12, s.v. va-yo-mer.

[ix]Shemot 3:11.

[x]Shemot 4:10.

[xi]Shemot 4:13.

[xii]Shemot 3:12.

[xiii]Shemot 4:13.

[xiv] Menahot 29b.

[xv]Devarim 6:5.

[xvi] The Gemara in Menahot may be a homiletic and not historical story. But even if that is the case, the Gemara touches upon the issue of what Moshe’s challenges and relationship with God were by addressing what God would say to him had this situation occurred.