by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education
At the ripe age of ten, I recall being fairly convinced that by the time I hit twenty-eight, I would possess that special realization about the world that I’d clearly been missing. What realization exactly?
After observing the people I love grappling with finances, religion and language barriers, my ten-year-old self was hoping that at twenty-eight, maybe I would understand enough about the world that I wouldn’t have to grapple quite so much. Naturally, I decided having the answers was my best protection. So I searched. I studied. I asked a lot of questions.
But my prying came from fear. I was trained in the old saying: “knowledge is power,” and as a small person hoping to feel a lot bigger, I took that seriously.
At the peak of my teenage-level anxiety about the meaning of life and death, I stumbled into the ceramics room at Brookline High School. I began making things with my hands, and in between making things, my teacher would come by and ask me about my work. These were not just any questions. These were the kind of questions that are disorienting because there is no way to answer them neatly, and at best, they just lead to more questions.
“What were you trying to evoke when you made this…Is this a reflection of how you feel about yourself…What story are you trying to tell with this piece?”
Oi va voy. Yes, I cringe when I remember this now. And somewhere I have all of the head-less-female-nude sculptures to explain why. But this experience changed me. I made some pieces that year that I’m still very proud of. More importantly, I learned about the power of asking questions as a way of opening up the world.
My ten-year-old self had been on a mission to locate knowledge, knowledge that I thought would make me feel safe and in control. I never did find it. Instead, I discovered that a teacher who knows how to ask the right questions and really listen, is a magical thing. A teacher who creates a space where you can ask any question, not so that you know more, but so you can think more, is really a treasure.
Rabbi Akiva is one of our tradition’s most beloved teachers, and there is a story about him that’s among my favorite pieces of midrash. It’s on the theme of powerful questions and it came up last week in our first installation of Many Waters.
One day, at the ripe age of 40, Rabbi Akiva’s life as a humble shepherd changed forever. Akiva passed by a well where he saw a rock that had been engraved. He asked, “Who engraved this rock?” A group of scholars answered with a snarky undertone: “Why Akiva, don’t you know the line (from the book of Job) ‘It is the water that wears away the stone?'” Akiva is poor and unlearned, he didn’t know that line and likely these scholars knew that. Yet all of this led him to a profound realization: “If a substance as soft as water can penetrate a rock, than surely Torah which is hard as iron can penetrate my heart!” Akiva, with no concern for his pride, took his young son and they went to school. Together they learned the aleph bet. Eventually they learned the whole Torah.
This story gets me every time. First, Akiva is not afraid to ask an obvious question. Of course, it’s only obvious because most of us take our 6th grade class on water erosion for granted. In reality, the science and beauty of how water can erode stone is complex. Akiva is also fully engaged with his surroundings and curious. While the scholars are trying to prove that they are ‘knowledgeable,’ by quoting Job, Akiva is unconcerned. His question has led him to a new perspective on what he is capable of, and it leads him to becoming one of our greatest teachers.
I’ve been a teacher for over nine years, and in that time I’ve heard a lot of incredible questions. They are how I know that my students and I are on an adventure without a knowable trajectory. There are things I want them to know about the mikveh, but the most important thing to me isn’t that they are mikveh experts when they leave; I care that we have been using our minds, together.
Just as Akiva asked about the way water affects its’ surroundings, visitors to Mayyim Hayyim learn about the structure of a mikveh, the way the water flows in from the bor (well) outside. My students ask:
“Can you stand outside and hold out a cup until it fills with rainwater and then dump enough of it into the indoor mikveh to fulfill the halachic requirement of 40 seah (a rabbinic form of measurement equally 200 gallons)…Do you have to be Jewish to go into the mikveh…Could you make an indoor mikveh that has an opening in the ceiling where the rain falls in…If you put a pig into the mikveh would that make it kosher to eat?”
We Jews put a high premium on questions. Each of these questions could warrant a whole treatise outlining the reasoning for many possible answers. Whether it’s the four questions of a Passover seder or discussions in the Mishna and its commentary –our people ask a lot of questions. Better yet, we come up with twice as many answers.
Yet many of us have pushed up against the feeling of their being a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ way to be a Jew at some point in our lives. Akiva might have felt it as a 40 year-old shepherd who decided to commit himself to study. You might have felt it if you’ve ever tried learning a new Jewish ritual. The problem is, as we get older, the pressure to look like we know everything grows. Sometimes we don’t just forget to ask questions, we actually decide there is one answer.
I can’t argue with the saying: “knowledge is power,” but it’s just a fraction of the picture. What Akiva experienced by the well is a lot like what Mayyim Hayyim does by the mikveh during our Education programs. We ask our visitors to come and look, touch, open, read and explore. How else can you really come to know something unless you are able to bring all of your unabashed curiosity to it? I have no doubt Akiva would have been proud. I definitely am.
Leeza Negelev is the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim. She likes it when her students ask her questions.