Sometimes the moments line up just right. For more than a year I have been coming to morning tefillah (prayer) at Hebrew College, since long before I started school. It was part of my grounding practice while I was in between, and it was instrumental in helping me to make my decision. In the course of that practice, especially at the beginning, I felt lost more often than not, sometimes extravagantly so.
There was one day that was so unsettling that I wrote about it here. On that day, there were no guideposts in prayer, just an open space and a lot of people doing their own thing with what looked to me like unattainable competence. It was so unnerving I considered leaving, but was afraid people would notice me leaving and it might affect my chances of being admitted to the program.
Fast forward about a year.
This morning, just days from the end of my first semester as a rabbinical student, I came in for tefillah a few minutes late to find there were three other people there. All faculty. All engaged in their own personal, mostly silent prayer. There was a little mumbling, a little humming, an occasional snatch of recognizable text, a lot of page flipping.
I walked in, opened my siddur, and began to pray.
This afternoon I went to see one of my professors for a quick question. So I thought. Nearly two hours later, I left his office, having moved from the so-called quick question to a deeper conversation to impromptu study of a famous text about Rabbi Akiva. Akiva is one of my favorites, for two reasons: he happens to share a name with my beloved elder son. And he started studying as an adult.
The text I studied with my professor depicts a moment where Akiva contemplates the mouth of a well and muses to his companions: How did this stone get worn away? They tell him, The water falls on it every day. Haven’t you read that water can erode stone?
Akiva extrapolates a judgment for himself: if something soft can sculpt something hard, how much more can something hard, like words of Torah, shape something soft, like my heart?
And presently he began to study Torah.