It’s likely the first piece of Gemara that Jewish children learn, usually in the first or second grade.  But few of us truly appreciate just how relevant it is to each and every one of us.

Rabbi Akiva, the legendary sage, was found delivering a Torah lecture in defiance of the Romans’ strict ban on Torah study.  A flabbergasted disciple approached the rabbi to ask why he risked his life in order to teach Torah.  Shouldn’t he desist and delay his Torah teaching until after the decree is repealed?

Rabbi Akiva replied by telling his timeless fable of the fox and the fish.  The fox sees the fish frantically scurrying about in the water, and asks them why they look so frightened.  They explain that the fishermen are out to catch them, and they are scared for their lives.  True to form, the wily and hungry fox says to them, “Why don’t you come out of the water onto the shore, where you’ll be safe?”

But the fish are smarter than that, and they reply, “If in our natural environment we are frightened, all the more so, we will be frightened if we leave our natural environment.”

You don’t need me to tell you the punch line, as you’ve heard it countless times: Torah is to the Jew what water is to the fish, and if we are threatened while we are involved in Torah, then we face an even greater threat if we leave the Torah.

One of beautiful and remarkable things about Torah is that it can be studied on so many different levels.  As important as it is for young schoolchildren to learn Rabbi Akiva’s fable, it is just as important for us grownups to learn its deeper meaning and understand the full impact of its message.

Yaakov and “Kel

We begin by exploring an enigmatic verse in the Book of Beresheet (33:20) which we read this month, which tells of the altar constructed by Yaakov Avinu upon his return to his homeland after 20 years in exile.  After surviving the machinations of his wily uncle, Lavan, for whom he worked, and then his dreaded reunion with his violent and vengeful brother, Esav, Yaakov arrives safe and sound in the Land of Israel, whereupon he constructs an altar.  The Torah then says, “vayikra lo Kel Elokeh Yisrael.”  In some English translations of the Humash, this is understood to mean that Yaakov proclaimed “Kel Elokeh Yisrael,” that Gd was “the Gd of Israel,” or his Gd.  (Recall that Yaakov was also named “Yisrael.”)  Rashi, however, citing the Gemara (Megillah 18), offers a much different interpretation, one which, if the Talmud hadn’t said it, would sound almost heretical.  According to Rashi, the phrase means that “the Gd of Israel” called Yaakov by the title “Kel.”  The word “Kel,” which is one of the Names of the Almighty, was now made a name for Yaakov Avinu!  Gd Himself referred to Yaakov with one of His own Names.

How could this be?  It goes without saying that Judaism outright rejects the notion of a human being possessing any sort of divinity.  How, then, can we explain the Torah’s account of Gd ascribing one of His Names to Yaakov?

The answer lies in the deep meaning and nature of the divine Name of “Kel.”  This Name is listed among the famous Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, which we probably still remember from the Selihot and Yom Kippur prayer services.  “Kel” is not just a Name; it describes a certain attribute of the Almighty.  And to understand the basic meaning of this attribute, we need to look no further than the weekday Amidah prayer.  In many of the blessings in this prayer, we employ the term “Kel” in reference to Gd’s beneficence:

Nadia – Instead of bullets – use an icon of an open siddur

·         In the prayer for forgiveness: “ki Kel tov ve-salah Atah” (“for You are a good and forgiving Gd”)

·         In the prayer for redemption: “ki Kel go’el hazak Atah” (“for You are Gd who is a strong redeemer”)

·         In the prayer for health: “ki Kel rofeh ne’eman verahaman Atah” (“for You are Gd who is a reliable and merciful doctor”)

·         In the prayer for rain: “ki Kel tov umetiv Atah” (“for You are a good and beneficent Gd”)

·         In the concluding prayer that our requests will be granted: ki Kel shome’a tefilot vetahanunim Atah” (“for You are a Gd who hears prayers and entreaties”)

We may thus conclude that the attribute of “Kel” refers to Gd’s generosity, His desire to grant us what we need, such as a livelihood, health, national redemption, and so on.  It describes Gd’s giving, His opening His arms, so-to-speak, and bestowing endless gifts upon His creatures.

The Power of the Kal Vahomer

But there is also a deeper dimension to the attribute of “Kel.”The Maggid of Mezritch, the most famous disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, taught that the Thirteen Attributes correspond to the 13 “middot sheha’Torah nidreshet bahem,” the rules by which the sages derived laws from the text of the Torah.  These 13 middotwere enumerated by Rabbi Yishmael, and many people recite them each day just before the Pesukeh Dezimrasection of the morning Shaharitservice.  These rules together form the system by which the sages reached halachic conclusions on the basis of the Biblical text.

The Maggid of Mezritch taught us that these 13 middotare not simply rules which the Talmudic sages followed in interpreting the Torah.  Rather, they are laden with immense spiritual power.  When a student learns Gemara and studies the application of one of these rules, he activates the divine attribute associated with that rule.  Torah study is so powerful that we are able to “trigger” the 13 attributes of the Almighty through our learning, specifically, by learning an application of the exegetical rules corresponding to those attributes.  Learning Torah is fundamentally different from the study of other disciplines.  In other fields, one studies to gain knowledge.  But when it comes to Torah, we learn not only to acquire knowledge – which is certainly a vital obligation in its own right – but also for the spiritual effects of our learning.  And while all Torah study yields profound spiritual effects, the study of the 13 middothas the particular effect of activating Gd’s 13 attributes of mercy.

The divine attribute of “Kel,” the Maggid taught, corresponds to what is likely the most famous of the 13 middot, namely, the rule of “kal vahomer.”  This rule (known in English as a fortiori)allows for establishing a halachah based on the argument of “If A is correct, then certainly B is correct.”  For example, if we find a stringency that applies to a certain area of halachah, we may extend it to a different area of halachah that is generally treated with greater stringency.  Since the stringency applies in a relatively lenient context, it certainly applies in a more stringent context.  Kal vahomer arguments abound in the Talmud, as anyone who spends time learning Gemara knows very well.  And according to the Maggid of Mezritch, each time we learn a kal vahomer, we activate the attribute of “Kel,” Gd’s extraordinary beneficence, and bring His blessing upon us.  Studying a kal vahomer argument has the capacity to open the floodgates of heavenly blessing, and allow the bounty of Gd’s benevolence to pour forth into the world.

Sacrificing for Torah

Truth be told, in many instances one can activate this attribute of “Kel” even before he even opens the book.

There is one kal vahomer that we make even before we begin learning, the moment we make the decision to learn.  And this is the kal vahomer made by the fish in Rabbi Akiva’s fable: “If in our natural environment we are frightened, all the more so, we will be frightened if we leave our natural environment.”

In Rabbi Akiva’s time, the Roman authorities were the “fox,” the one who fiendishly attempted to lure the Jews away from the “water,” from their source of spiritual life.  Thankfully, in our times[DS1] , we are blessed with the freedom to study Torah without fear of persecution.  Nevertheless, there are many other “foxes” luring us away from Torah.  Often, it is simply the fatigue brought on by a hard day’s work that discourages us from going to learn in the evening.  Other times, it is the actual difficulty entailed in deciphering a complex Talmudic passage.  For some, the challenge of earning a respectable livelihood for their families, which consumes their entire day, leads them to neglect Torah study.  The distractions of technology – the constant stream of phone calls, text messages, emails and tweets, and the “pressure” of having to frequently check and update the Facebook page – make it very difficult to devote chunks of time to attentive Torah learning.  For many people, the need to keep up-to-date with the latest fashions, cars, apps and gadgets adds not only to their monthly budget, but also to the number of hours spent shopping and browsing.  The media, in its desperate attempt to win our attention, convinces us that we need to check the news at least every hour so we don’t miss any information.

The “foxes” are everywhere.  They try persuading us to come onto the “shore” where we will be “safe,” where we will enjoy the comforts, luxury and “quality of life” that we are denied if we remain in the “water,” if we take out time for learning.  We all deal with pressures of one kind or another that make us believe we cannot afford the time or energy required to study Torah.  Our inclination draws us to the seeming “security” of our worldly pursuits, where we know we won’t be missing anything important.

And yet, baruch Hashem, our community proudly boasts literally hundreds of men and women who overcome these pressures and manage to carve out significant blocks of time from their busy schedules for serious Torah learning.  These heroes of our community are the “fish” in Rabbi Akiva’s story, who avoid the fox’s trap by responding, “If I risk sacrificing ‘quality of life’ by studying Torah – how much more will I be risking if I don’t study Torah!”  They do not fool themselves into thinking that making time for Torah does not entail any sacrifices.  Of course it does.  But they understand that they stand to lose much more if they do not learn Torah.

Anytime we silence the “fox” and decide to learn when it is inconvenient, difficult or taxing, we make Rabbi Akiva’s kal vahomer.  We are telling ourselves, “If learning is difficult, not learning must be even more difficult!”  And in so doing, we activate the attribute of “Kel” before we even enter the classroom, and before we read the first word on the page.  The decision itself is based on this kal vahomer, and by applying this kal vahomer we bring upon ourselves the unlimited blessings bestowed by the divine attribute of “Kel.”

And thus the Talmud teaches (Eruvin 54a) that one who feels ill should study Torah, which has the capacity to cure.  If one finds himself in a physical condition that makes learning difficult, but he overcomes this challenge and learns anyway (assuming, of course, this does not exacerbate his condition[DS2] ), he makes Rabbi Akiva’s kal vahomer and thus activates the blessings of “Kel,” which include the blessing of health.

The Quintessential “Fish”

Nobody personified this response of the fish like Yaakov Avinu.  Yaakov spent a great deal of his life confronting grave personal crises.  In particular, as discussed earlier, he had to flee into exile for 20 years to escape his brother’s vengeance, and during that period he suffered the abuse and lies of his corrupt father-in-law.  Throughout these ordeals, however, as the sages describe, Yaakov engaged in Torah study.  When Esav first decided to kill him, Yaakov did not immediately go to Lavan, and instead spent 14 years learning Torah in the yeshivah of Shem and Ever.  He never excused himself from this obligation, regardless of the circumstances.  He embodied the message of the fish – that if things are hard with Torah, certainly they will be hard without Torah.

And this is why Gd applied to Yaakov the attribute “Kel.”  Yaakov lived the kal vahomer of the fish, and thus personified the attribute of “Kel,” the blessing one brings through the power of the kal vahomer.

We said that nobody personified the message of the fish like Yaakov, but in truth, this statement needs to be qualified.  There was one another person who exemplified learning amid hardship to the same extent as Yaakov, and that was Rabbi Akiva himself.  Rabbi Akiva lived through what was perhaps the worst period of persecution endured by the Jewish nation, and yet he ranks among the greatest Torah sages that ever lived.  He continued learning and teaching despite the Romans’ edicts, and was tortured and killed for doing so.

Indeed, the Arizal commented that Rabbi Akiva’s soul was rooted in the soul of Yaakov Avinu.  In fact, they shared several similarities – both worked as shepherds and ended up marrying their employer’s daughter, who in both instances was named Rahel.  These two great men are very much connected, and both serve as shining examples of unwavering devotion to Torah learning that withstands all obstacles and hardships.  They lived the message of the fish, that no matter what the circumstances, life without Torah is always more dangerous for the Jew than life with Torah. Our mission is clear, we must ignore the “fox,” the numerous distractions and pressures that lure us away from Torah learning, and reinforce our belief that we are always better off remaining in the “water.”

 [DS1]I embellished here, adding specific examples in order to make the message more concrete and practically relevant.

 [DS2]I took the liberty to add this parenthetical statement to clarify that a sick person should not learn if he needs to rest.