Akiva The Shepherd
by Gertcel Davydov
* Akiva the Shepherd, © Gertcel Davydov, 2016. Size: 170x215 mm. Age restrictions: +6.
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Table of contents:
1. Akiva The Shepherd
2. Life In The Horse Barn
3. A Donkey With A Flower On Its Back
4. The Twenty-Two Letters Of The Hebrew Alphabet
5. The Yeshiva In The City Of Yavneh
7. Shulamit — The Daughter Of Rabbi Akiva And Rachel
8. Everything Is For The Best
3. A Donkey With A Flower On Its Back
On the first day of school, the children pointed fingers at Akiva and laughed at him out loud. They found it very funny to see a grown man sitting next to them in the classroom.
Akiva and Yehoshua sat at a narrow desk on two low chairs. The chairs were obviously designed for children, so Akiva was very uncomfortable sitting on one. The teacher was repeatedly distracted by the creaking noise that the tiny chair made whenever Akiva moved a muscle, and this distracted the other students as well. By the time the lesson was over, Akiva’s chair fell apart completely, which made the students and teacher burst out laughing. Akiva fell down on the floor, showered by ridicule from his young classmates. His feelings were so hurt that even though he wasn’t injured by the fall, he vowed never to attend school again.
Patiently waiting for the school day to end, Akiva went home together with his son. The whole way back he scolded himself for pandering to Rachel and agreeing to start studying at such a late age. He only wanted one thing: to get home, lock himself up in his room and forget that shameful experience.
When he reached the gate of his house, Akiva heard the voice of his elderly neighbor, Ishra. The mean old man could not miss an opportunity to jeer at his neighbor either:
— What do you say, Akiva? How was your first day at school? — the neighbor asked with a sneer. — Did you make any friends in class?
Akiva said nothing in response and, lowering his head, rushed into the house, where his wife waited for him, her face flushed with delight.
After dinner Akiva told Rachel that he would not be going back to school. He would be better off working more to enable their children, Yehoshua and Shulamit, to study and grow up literate. Hearing her husband say this, Rachel became teary-eyed. She was very offended by Akiva caring so much about what other people thought of him while being completely indifferent to what his wife thought. She understood that it was very difficult for him to be ridiculed by others at his age, but she did not even think of settling for his decision to give up his studies. She did not sleep all night long, and at the first break of dawn she took all the money they had and went to the city market.
After returning home and making breakfast, Rachel woke up her husband and son. She fed them, sent Yehoshua off to school, and then asked her husband to come with her to the backyard. There, Akiva saw a donkey tied to a tree.
— What is this, Rachel? — Akiva asked in bewilderment.
— It’s a donkey, — Rachel replied nonchalantly.
— Where did you get it? And why is it so old, with a dent in its back like a two-humped camel?
— I bought it at the market today.
— And how much did you pay for it?
— Everything we had, — Rachel replied, looking at Akiva with anticipation.
— Rachel! — Akiva exclaimed loudly, grabbing his head. — You gave away all our savings for this old donkey?! Whatever do you need it for? Do you want to show it off to people at the market for money? But it can’t do anything other than eat and sleep!
— Well, you need something to help you carry brushwood, don’t you? This will be your assistant.
— You call that an assistant? For that kind of money you could have at least bought a good donkey! This one may just barely make it all the way to the forest, but on the way back I’ll surely have to carry the brushwood and the donkey on my own back. Then I’ll have a dent in my back in no time too…
— Akiva, please, do everything I tell you and later we’ll decide what to do next, — Rachel entreated her husband.
— What are you up to this time? — Akiva wondered.
Rachel picked up a handful of soil, filled the dent in the donkey’s back with it, took a flower out of a pot and planted it in the middle of the dent. Then she covered it all up with a small shabby rug and said, “Take this donkey to the market with you for a whole week, okay?” She gave her husband an inquiring, hopeful look.
— Rachel, what has come over you? Are you in your right mind?! People are looking for any excuse to poke fun at me as it is, so why are you helping them?
— Akiva, choose, — said Rachel, looking more stern now. — You can either do as I say or go to school with your son tomorrow.
Akiva had to agree:
— Fine, I will do as you ask if that’s what it takes to end this conversation once and for all.
Akiva did not understand what Rachel was up to, but he took the donkey with him to the forest as his wife had instructed him to. After gathering enough dry twigs and loading them onto the animal’s back, he made his way to the market.
Seeing Akiva with a donkey that had a flower growing out of its back, the merchants and shoppers passing by began jeering loudly.
— So, Akiva, you’ve found a new friend? — a merchant’s voice called out to him.
These words made other merchants break out laughing, and as Akiva kept walking, his head lowered, someone else shouted:
— Akiva, have you decided to start selling flowers instead of wood?
Akiva set up shop at his usual place and quickly selling the brushwood he had gathered, he rushed home. Blocking the donkey’s back from strangers’ eyes with his torso, Akiva quickly left the market and hurried home, hoping to finally hide from the jeers of the passers-by.
But seeing Akiva coming home with the old donkey and the flower growing out of its back, his neighbor Ishra yelled out:
— Akiva, you and the donkey must be good mates! You look so nice together. In fact, looking at you, I could hardly see any difference. — Ishra rolled with laughter as he added, — Actually, to think of it, I do see a difference: unlike you, the donkey probably knows how to read.
Without saying anything back to the elderly neighbor, Akiva quickly locked the gate and entered the yard. After tying the donkey to a tree, he washed his hands and entered the house, where dinner was set out on the table for him. During dinner, Akiva told Rachel about all of the mockery he had suffered that day, and added that he positively refuses to go back to the market with the donkey and the flower in its back. However, Rachel insisted that Akiva uphold the agreement they had made for him to take the donkey with him to the market for a whole week.
At the end of the last day of the week that he promised to his wife, Akiva returned home, tied up the donkey, washed his hands and sat at the table. Rachel served him a delicious dinner and asked him:
— How was your day?
— As usual. In the morning—the forest, then—the market, and then—home, — Akiva replied.
— And where’s your donkey? — Rachel continued asking.
— It’s in the yard. It was hot today and the poor thing barely made it.
— And the flower? It hasn’t withered?
— No. I water it twice a day, just like you told me to, — Akiva assured his wife.
— So all day long you walked around with the donkey and the flower in its back, and everything went well? That’s strange, — said Rachel, shaking her head.
— And what was supposed to happen? — Akiva asked in surprise.
— No one made fun of the flower growing out of the donkey’s back? — Rachel asked, not backing off with her questions.
— You know what? They didn’t, — Akiva said, suddenly wondering why that was. — The merchants at the market laughed about it for the first few days, but now they have quieted down for some reason and don’t even pay me any mind. They’ve probably gotten used to the idea that there are regular donkeys and then there are donkeys with flowers in their backs…
— Akiva, darling, you don’t have to take the donkey to the market with you anymore, — said Rachel, affectionately putting her hand on her husband’s shoulder.
— Why not? I’m already used to it, — Akiva said with a gentle smile.
— Because you have already answered your own question, — his wife said.
— Which question? — Akiva asked in surprise.
— Of whether or not you should study, — Rachel explained. Akiva wanted to object, but Rachel resolutely continued:
— Akiva, do you remember the reason why you didn’t want to continue studying? You were scared that people would laugh at you, right?
— That’s right, Rachel, — Akiva ardently replied. — I have already told you so.
— I remember. But at first you were embarrassed to even show up at the market with the donkey for your fear of being mocked by the merchants and passers-by. And they did laugh at you for a day or two, but then they got used to it. And the same thing will happen at school: the teachers, neighbors, merchants and even children will laugh for a day or two, or maybe even a week, but then they will get used to you and won’t think anything special of it anymore. Trust me: if it took them a week to get used to a donkey with a flower in its back, it will take them even less time to get used to the idea that you have decided to learn to read and write at the age of forty.
Akiva had no choice but to agree with his clever wife and to continue studying together with his son.
8. Everything Is For The Best
Rabbi Akiva was enormously respected and trusted both by the poor and wealthy residents of Judea, who asked him to perform the duties of the Gabbai Tzedakah, a person who collects charity funds for the poor. This was a very honorable position. Now he was not only responsible for heading a Yeshiva and teaching young students, but also for caring for all the poor citizens of Judea.
Rabbi Akiva told his students that tomorrow he would be travelling to northern Judea to distribute the collected funds to the needy. After breakfast and the morning prayer, Rabbi Akiva mounted his donkey and set out on the long journey. He took along a basket with food and a large bag with money for the poor. He also took a rooster that usually woke him up in the morning, and a candle so he could read after sunset. The road ahead was very long and when dusk approached, Rabbi Akiva decided to spend the night in the nearest village.
Rabbi Akiva knocked on the door of a small guesthouse. The owner of the establishment opened the door.
— Peace be upon you! May I spend the night here? — the Rabbi asked.
The owner of the place did not recognize that the humble, elderly man was a great sage, and seeing the rooster and the donkey, he replied:
— Upon you be peace! But I cannot help you. All the rooms are occupied.
— I don’t mind sleeping on the floor, — Rabbi Akiva replied.
But the disagreeable guesthouse landlord repeated that there were no rooms available and shut the door.
Rabbi Akiva did not lose heart. “Everything that the Almighty does is for the best”, he thought to himself, and left the village.
He made his way to the field, where he decided to spend the night. The righteous man sat on a stone, ate a light meal and just as he lit the candle and began reading, a strong gust of wind blew it out. The Rabbi found himself in total darkness, but he did not get angry and once again he thought, “Everything that the Almighty does is for the best”. Placing the bag with the money under his head as a pillow, he lay down under a tree. But just as he closed his eyes, he heard his donkey braying as it broke free of its halter strap. “How will I manage without a donkey? I have such a long journey to travel”, Rabbi Akiva thought. But this time, too, he did not lose his composure and quietly said to himself, “Everything that the Almighty does is for the best”. Then he promptly fell asleep.
Rabbi Akiva was awakened by the sunlight, rather than the rooster’s crowing. He had planned to wake up early in the morning, but judging by the position of the sun, it was close to lunchtime already. Getting up on his feet, he saw that the rooster had been torn to shreds by a fox. But this, too, did not anger the Rabbi. Even though he ended up spending the night in the field under a tree, his donkey ran away, and the rooster did not wake him up early in the morning, Rabbi Akiva continued repeating, “Everything that the Almighty does is for the best”. Throwing his bag over his shoulder, he continued on his journey.
Passing by the village where the landlord had turned him away from the guesthouse, the Rabbi heard people screaming and yelling. He asked one crying woman:
— What happened?
— Our village was attacked by robbers in the middle of the night. They took away all the valuables from the people of the village, — the dejected woman bewailed.
Hearing this, Rabbi Akiva was once again convinced of how true that phrase was, “Everything that the Almighty does is for the best”. Even though he lost a donkey and a rooster, he managed to save the charity funds for the poor that were entrusted to him.
Proceeding on his way to the city of Peki'in, the Rabbi thought about what happened: “If the candle hadn’t gone out last night and I would have continued reading late into the night, the robbers would definitely have noticed me in the field and taken away all the money. If the donkey hadn’t run away and the rooster hadn’t been eaten by the fox, then the animals would have made noise in the dark field and the robbers would still have noticed me and taken away all the money. At first, without seeing the full picture of what was happening, I could not understand the logic of things, but now I understand why the Almighty had set up those difficulties for me. It was in order to save me from the robbers. Today I have once again been convinced that everything that the Almighty does is for the best.”
© Gertcel Davydov, 2016.