The deeds of women often go unnoticed. Their accomplishments are seldom divulged, sometimes for modesty reasons. Because Scripture and the Talmud does not record much, we often have to rely on our oral tradition and the writings of the Kabbalist to understand their greatness.
Rachel, the wife of Rabbi Akiva, holds a special place in history as her husband attests to his 24.000 students that “It’s thanks to her that I have what I have and you have what you have”. Rabbi Akiva was none less than one of the greatest Tannaim, who is one of the most quoted sage in the Talmud. And this was all thanks to Rachel’s supernatural self-sacrifice in allowing her husband to study 12 years, followed by another 12 as he was returning.
The truth is the name Rachel does not appear in the Talmud, but only in the Avot D’Rabbi Natan. What we can glean from her story is truly amazing.
Read on to find out!
One fact that often goes unnoticed in Rachel’s story is her acute understanding of who Akiva was before they married. Our sages teach that Rabbi Akivalived 120 years, 40 of which he was an Am Ha’aretz(lit. “person of the land”, or boor”), for 40 years he studied intensively and for another 40 he taught.
It’s surprising to see that the daughter of the magnate Kalba Savuah would be interested in a man who had little to show for and, in his own words “would bite the hand of Rabbis like a donkey (whose jaw crushes the bones beyond repair)” due to his hate toward them. To say her father was displeased with her decision is a major understatement. He banished the newly married couple from his property and they were related to living in a barn.
Most people know the teaching of our sages which say that “Women possess a great Bina [lit. understanding]”. The Sefer Yetzirah adds that in Judaism, words are often called Bayit (house) because they “house” a number of ideas woven together, instead of describing discreet objects.
In Kabbalistic Tradition, Bina means the capacity to analyze a rough idea and develop it in order to visualize its many details. The seminal concept of a thing is often expressed as a seed. Through Bina one would then see the fruits emerging, which would be the idea fully developed.
Rachel displayed the special trait women possess, which is to see what her husband could become, and sacrificed her life for it. In the end, she proved to her scorning neighbors she was right all along.
Humiliation as a means of growth
No sage is made overnight. In fact, there are many requirements in order to build a person into a Tzadik. The Midrash HaGadol relates another fascinating story in which Rachel displayed tremendous foresight.
When they married, Akiva was hesitant to go study, not least because he was already 40 years old,and was constantly being mocked by small children who knew a lot more than him. To dispel this embarrassment, she sent her husband with a donkey laden with potted plants to the marketplace, in order to sell and bring back flour. Naturally, Akiva was made the laughingstock and came back downtrodden. The next day the story repeated when he was again asked to go to the marketplace to buy lentils. Akiva’sembarrassment then became a daily occurrence but something was changing: each time he was less ashamed than before since he started to become accustomed to it. Finally, Akiva lost all his shame and Rachel told him to go to school and start learning since we saw in Pirkei Avot that “An embarrassed person can never become learned”.
There’s of course a deeper meaning to Rachel’s plot. Clearly there were other ways of getting Akiva to start learning without resorting to sending him to the marketplace. Yet, remember: she was building one of the greatest sage of the whole Talmud (out of about 1000). Her goal was to make him embarrassed because Rebbe Nachman teaches that only one who’s humiliated can earn the supremely exalted soul of Zihara Ila’ah (the “Supreme Illumination” from Keterof Atzilut). This is the level of soul that Yosef himself earned when he was sent to prison in Egypt and the one whom Chanoch who became the angel Meta-Tron also merited.
A person who’s still attached to his honor and fears being humiliated can never reach the level Rabbi Akivaachieved. As we find in the Arizal’s writtings “if we knew the true value of being ridiculed, we’d be running to the marketplace to ask people to mock us!”. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, this is a hidden reference to Rachel, who knew what makes a truly great man.Indeed, as he himself declared, Rabbi Akiva owed everything he had to his righteous wife.
Rachel is buried in Tiberias, and her modest shrine is a less known place for pilgrimage.
This article was written in The zechut of Pinchas ben Sarah, SaraMiriam bat Sarah and their children Rachael Segulali, Benyamin Chaim and Abigail Ruchami. May Hashem help them attain all their hearts desires speedily.
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