Daf Yomi Nedarim 50
Who was the greatest female Torah sage of all time? Was it Miriam who led the Israelite women in song following the parting of the Red Sea? Was it Deborah who judged the people and fought their battles? Or maybe it was Beruria who is often quoted in the Talmud on account of her scholarship?
Rabbi Akiva was originally a poor shepherd when he married the daughter of the aristocrat, Kalba Savua. When her father heard, he disowned her. She then told her husband to go and learn Torah. Off he went to learn from Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua for twelve years.
Twelve years later he returned home. As he passed the back of the house, he heard a certain jerk telling his wife, ‘Your dad was right. Firstly, your husband isn’t in your league. Secondly, he’s left you a living widow all these years.’
‘If he’d listen to me,’ she replied, ‘he’d go back for another twelve years.’
Rabbi Akiva reasoned, ‘Sounds like she’s granted me permission. I’m going back.’ And he returned to the academy.
A further twelve years passed and he returned home with twenty-four thousand students. Everyone came out to greet them, including his wife.
‘Where are you going dressed in those tatters?’ asked the jerk.
She replied, ‘The righteous recognizes the soul.’ As she stepped forward to present herself, the rabbis pushed her back.
But Rabbi Akiva noticed her and declared, ‘Leave her! For all my Torah merit and your merit are really her merit!’
The greatest female Torah sage of all time was undoubtedly Rebbetzin Rachel who married Rabbi Akiva. She is buried in Tiberias, and each year tens of thousands of people make the pilgrimage to her tomb. Was she a prophetess like Miriam? Was she a judge and warrior like Deborah? Was she a scholar like Beruria?
She may or may not have possessed these qualities. But what is certain is that she was a Torah sage. Torah sagacity and merit do not accrue on account of how many volumes of the Talmud you know by heart. They are determined by the amount of devotion you have for the Torah. The true Torah sage learns not for the sake of accruing knowledge, but for the sake of connecting with the Almighty’s Wisdom. When you learn Torah lishma (for Its sake alone), your neshama (soul) becomes one with G-d. And so when Rebbetzin Rachel dedicated her life to Rabbi Akiva’s Torah learning, as the other half of his neshama, she too became one with G-d. That was his meaning when he told his students that it really wasn’t about him; it was all about her, because she had made the real sacrifice for Torah.
Sadly today, instead of couples working as partners, many husbands and wives find themselves in competition with one another. Each one feels they have to outdo the other in terms of salary, in terms of university degrees, and in terms of professional designations. And it has spilled over into the spiritual realm: instead of sacrificing oneself for Torah, each one feels that they need to get equal access to Torah learning. ‘You went out last night to a shiur; now it’s your turn to babysit and my turn to go to a shiur.’
It shouldn’t be like that. When you meet the other half of your soul, don’t try to compete with them. You’re both on the same team! Their gain is your gain. Your score is their score. It’s not a competition; it’s a partnership. Any spiritual victories are shared equally!
You are one soul. His merit is your merit. Her success is your success. May you merit becoming one with your spouse, forever feeling that you are on the same team and doing your best to bring out the greatest spiritual victory in your ultimate teammate!