The Sheepish Scholar

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The play tells the ancient story of Rakhel and Rabbi Akiba, the shepherd who became the father of the Talmud. In this scene, Akiba, still a shepherd, shows up at the Beit Midrash in the middle of the night, seeking a place
to study.

RABBI ELIEZER: What now ?!
AKIBA: (From outside.) I’m here to see the Rabbi.
RABBI ELIEZER: Who is it? It’s late!
AKIBA: (Through the door.) My name’s Akiba. Please!
RABBI ELIEZER: (Mumbling as he crosses to the door.) Akiba? This should mean something to me? Does a rabbi’s day never end?
AKIBA: Thank you for opening the door.
RABBI ELIEZER: What is it?
AKIBA: Are you…Rabbi Eliezer?
RABBI ELIEZER: Who else should I be?
AKIBA: I’m honored.
RABBI ELIEZER: And I, stranger, am exhausted. So please tell me why you’ve come. You don’t seem like our usual sort of visitor.
AKIBA: I’m sure I’m not. I’ve come to study Torah, unlikely as it seems.
RABBI ELIEZER: (To heaven.) G-d, is this one a hungry mind, or just another hungry mouth?
AKIBA: I’m not looking for a meal, Rabbi. Please, hear me out. I’ve been walking for days. I’ve already been turned away from three other study houses.
RABBI ELIEZER: Why did the others turn you away?
AKIBA: At the first, they said I was too old. The second, too dirty. The last one was simply too crowded. And always the same advice: “Go back to your flock!”
RABBI ELIEZER: (To heaven again, distraught.) He’s a shepherd!
AKIBA: All my forty years.
RABBI ELIEZER: So why come to study, at this late date?
AKIBA: Because I’ve made a vow. To my bride. To learn Torah. How can I break my vow and be worthy of calling myself her husband?
RABBI ELIEZER: A vow to one’s beloved is not something to be taken lightly. You are a wise fellow for at least knowing that.
AKIBA: I would not take any vow lightly. And Rakhel, my wife, is sacrificing much to make my study possible.
RABBI ELIEZER: Your Rakhel must be a righteous woman.
AKIBA: That she is. And I will not let her down.
RABBI ELIEZER: You know the study of Torah is a lifelong commitment. A road that only begins here at the Beit Midrash.
AKIBA: I’m a shepherd. Patience comes with the territory.
RABBI ELIEZER: You’re an unusual man, Akiba. (He considers a moment.) I presume you can read and write? (Akiba doesn’t answer.) Or, at least…read?
AKIBA: I can read the tracks of a sheep that has strayed from my flock. Or the movement of the stars in the night sky. I’ve slept out enough nights to be expert at that.
RABBI ELIEZER: I begin to see why the others suggested you go back and do what you’re expert at. To begin from scratch at this late date…
AKIBA: I’ve never been afraid of hard work!
RABBI ELIEZER: I believe you, Akiba. Still, there is yet another problem. Here at the Beit Midrash, everyone must have a study partner. And, considering you can’t even read, with whom, in good conscience, could I pair you up? (Sings.)In the first place, you don’t know anything / So what kind of partner would you be? On the other hand, that could make you curious / Dying to look and see So on the one hand, you might be a burden / A truly unnecessary job On the other hand, this could be a bit of a Mitzvah / Even a gift from G-d Seeing both sides of an issue / Is what studying’s about You can never know the answer / Til you’ve turned it inside out Look at both sides of an issue / And before the day is through You’ll see sides, and sides of sides / You never knew (He looks for an example to use.) Take this bottle of wine, Akiba. Would you say it was half empty or half full?
AKIBA: Well…on the one hand…if one had a lot of guests to serve, and only this one bottle, then I would call it half empty. But if, on the other hand, just you and I were to have the pleasure of polishing it off alone, then it is definitely half full—since it leaves us plenty to share!
RABBI ELIEZER: A not unimpressive bit of reasoning, Akiba! Perhaps you are already starting to—(Catches himself.)—still… (Sings.) On the one hand, you’re over forty / And you don’t even know your Alef-Beit
AKIBA: (Sings.) On the other hand, I have real experience / Could be, that carries weight
BOTH: (They sing.) So on the one hand
RABBI ELIEZER: (Sings.) You are like a blank slate
AKIBA: (Sings.) No writing recorded there to read
RABBI ELIEZER: (Sings.) On the other hand, you are like a sample of truth / With every life example you need
AKIBA: (Sings.) Seeing both sides of an issue / Is what studying’s about Well, the concept is no stranger than / Say, breathing in and out Start on one side of an issue / But before you make it through You’ll find someone else’s side / Belongs to you! I know how a shepherd learns his trade, Rabbi. But tell me, how does a Jew grow wise?
RABBI ELIEZER: A wise Jew is one who learns from everyone! (Sings.)So, say I take a chance / Attempt a different way Presume that since you’ve lived a lot / You’ve got a lot to say Yes, if I take a leap / Into the great unknown
AKIBA: (Sings.) Since you’ve got me with you / You’re not doing it alone Rabbi, tell me please, what makes a Jew strong?
RABBI ELIEZER: A strong Jew is one who subdues his evil impulses.
AKIBA: And when is a Jew considered rich?
RABBI ELIEZER: A rich Jew is one who is content with his lot. Now let me ask YOU one: What Jew will be honored?
AKIBA: (After a moment’s thought.) The one who honors others!
RABBI ELIEZER: And say I tried you out as a partner…for myself!
AKIBA: Then there’d be no man more honored than I!
BOTH: (They sing.) Seeing both sides of an issue / Is what studying’s about You can never know the answer / Til you’ve turned it inside out Start on one side of an issue / And before you’ve reached the end You might find that you have found / Yourself a friend!
AKIBA: May I stay then, Rabbi?
RABBI ELIEZER: Akiba, it is I who would be honored!