These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

“Water Wears Away Stone”: The (Soft) Power of Torah  — Reflections after a year of learning at Pardes

Posted on June 20, 2017 by Mira Niculescu

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At Pardes, we have a great tradition. It’s called “Take Five”: A few months into the program, right before community lunch on Thursday, we all gather in the Beit Midrash to hear a student share five minutes of Torah. I love this practice. For the listeners, it’s a beautiful way to gain insight into other people’s experience, and to receive some new Torah that they wouldn’t have met by themselves. For the speaker, it is a great way to reflect on what they’ve recently learned, and to give back. But also, just coming up to the bima in front of the whole community of students, staff and teachers to offer a little of our own Torah, it is in itself  a very empowering moment.

This is what I shared in my take five. I spoke about Torah and its power, from a Talmudic Aggadic source I had encountered shortly before. It is from the Avot de rabbi Natan. It talks about water, rocks, and a rabbinic figure I particularly like: Rabbi Akiva. Here goes the story:

What was the beginning of Rabbi Akiva? They say that he was forty years old and had not learned a thing. One time, he was standing at the mouth of the well and said: “who carved this rock?” They said to him: “the water that consistently falls on it every day”. They said to him: “Akiva, did you not read water wears away stones (Job 14:15)?” Immediately Rabbi Akiva ruled a Kal veChomer: just as the soft (water) sculpts the hard (stone) – words of Torah, which are as hard as iron, will all the more so carve my heart/mind, which is but flesh and blood!

Rabbi Akiva is a character that moves me, because he came very late in his life to Torah learning, from scratch. This takes so much courage and humility. And I think this is what a lot of us, at Pardes, are doing: we all come to sit for a few months or more in a beit midrash, naked and new before knowledge, while in our outside lives we are teachers, leaders, directors, professors. And learning takes so much patience. Before understanding anything, we have to learn Hebrew, and Aramaic. We have to sit for hours to try to decipher signs on a page, in a new alphabet, with new vocabulary, before we can even start discussing any content. This takes humility, and patience.

This patience is the patience of water, running over the hard surface of stone, again and again, in order to progressively, invisibly slowly, but surely, shape it.

“Water wears away stones”, say his companions to Rabbi Akiva. I loved this image. I felt it was exactly what I had come to do that year at Pardes: lending myself to the slow and powerful flow of learning, day in, day out, the flow of Torah that would progressively transform me.

Yet in talking about the relationship between Torah and us, Rabbi Akiva chose to interpret this statement with a Kal veChomer, an “all the more so” reasoning: since Torah, he says, is hard as iron, it will easily sculpt us, who are just soft flesh. But by doing so, it seems to me like he has reverted the image: in his mouth, Torah is no more the soft molding the hard. It becomes the hard carving the soft. First of all, his image is a painful one to me –and it also struck me, knowing the fate of Rabbi Akiva (who died with the grip of iron combs on his flesh); could it be a prefiguration of his death?

But second, and more importantly, it conceals the whole image that his companions were pointing to: Torah learning is efficient precisely because it is a soft, slow process. It transforms not by wounding, but by harmonizing.

Here lies the contrast between hard and soft power.

Stone and iron are solid. Stone crushes. Iron cuts. By contrast, water is fluid: it embraces the contours of things. Stone is hard. It breaks or is broken. Water is soft. It molds or is being molded. One is oppositional; the other is harmonizing. The first embodies hard power, the second soft power.

A couple of months before I gave my “take five”, a hard power had just risen in America. The result of the Presidential election had shaken the whole intellectual progressive humanistic world -not only in the States, but also in the world at large. In an Age of fear, America had chosen the power of the stone.

I don’t believe in the power of stone. I believe in the power of water.

This doesn’t mean not having to be hard sometimes. Water can also become ice. But the stone policy has never worked in the long run. It only brings more hardship, eventually. It backlashes. I believe in the soft power of people like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and of those who are choosing dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians today, in this beautiful land where turning into stones is so tempting everyday for all of us.

And I think this is precisely what is so powerful about the image brought about by the companions of Rabbi Akiva: it reminds us that true power comes from what we often tend to overlook. True power may not come from the power of stone, the “hard power”, but from the power of water, the soft one; the one that transforms things slowly, with time.

And Rabbi Akiva knows it. Even if he has offered a Kal VeChomer interpretation, it is still the vision of the waters shaping the stones that has inspired him to go to Torah learning. To give himself to its waters.

To me, this midrash is a testimony to soft power. It talks about letting things transform us from within, through learning. This may be the most beautiful type of power we can learn: not a power over others; but a power over ourselves. The Pirkei Avot seem to allude to this too (chap.4.1):

“Who is strong?” Ask our sages “He who conquers his evil inclination”.

According to our Avot, real power lies in our capacity to transform ourselves. This is called empowerment. And I think this is really what we’ve come to do at Pardes, sitting day after day in the Beit Midrash.

In an age where everything goes so fast, and where everything is about immediate gratification and compulsive consumption, Yeshiva life teaches us that learning is much more than taking something (even knowledge). It is about giving and receiving, and about being transformed by the process.

May we come to learn like stones giving ourselves to water. And may we become like water with every stone that we encounter.

Mira Niculescu