Monday, February 09, 2004

My New Hero

I’m turning 40 this week; I guess that means I’m middle aged. Truth is, I don’t feel all that different, nor have I gotten a sudden urge to buy a sports car. But I do have a new hero, or to bemore precise, I’ve rediscovered an old hero: Rabbi Akiva.

Akiva was an uneducated shepherd who commenced his Torah studies at age forty. Completely illiterate, he had to go back to first grade and study the Aleph Bet. Through sheer determination, he quickly overcame his lack of knowledge, and became the greatest Rabbi of all time.

As an elementary school student, I understood the Akiva story as a parable about persistence. Its message was that even Akiva, the illiterate one who thinks he’s “dumb”, is able to succeed if he is willing to work hard. It taught me that diligence is just as critical as high intelligence.

Today, I’ve reclaimed the Akiva story for a new lesson. At middle age, coasting becomes a serious temptation. Seniority often bring success; and success makes it easy to lose your edge. You become risk averse, you refuse to accept new challenges, and avoid difficult situations. You “settle down”, and consider it a blessing that you no longer need to struggle. In short, for many of us forty is an age for status quo.

I too am tempted by the pleasant inertia of the status quo. Why not? The status quo keeps your blood pressure down, and reduces stress. But whenever inertia sets in, I remember Akiva. Akiva now teaches me that forty need not be “middle age”, an era intended exclusively for continuity, conservatism, and conformity. Yes, Akiva could have played it safe and sated his hunger for knowledge with a few Hebrew lessons. But then he would have lived out his life in anonymity as just another forgotten shepherd. Instead, Akiva started over, went back to first grade, and transformed his entire life. And that’s exactly why he’s my new hero; because he reminds me that forty is an excellent age for new beginnings.

First graders are used to new beginnings. For them, every day is a tour de force, filled with new exploits. Unfortunately, as we age, we teach ourselves to resist the unfamiliar, and we drain away our natural enthusiasm. But if he chooses to, a forty year old man can be as adventuresome as a first grader. And that is exactly what Akiva did; he went back to first grade and rediscovered his sense of wonder. I believe that ultimately it was Rabbi Akiva’s “grade one” skills that enabled him to become a great man.

So, now I’m middle aged man. But that doesn’t really matter; like my new hero, Akiva, I’m still a first grader at heart.

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