Once, Rabbi Akiba stood at the mouth of a well and asked: Who hollowed this stone? He was told: Is it not the water which constantly falls on it day after day? Rabbi Akiba reasoned: If soft water can wear away hard stone, how much more can the words of Torah, which are as hard as iron, carve a way into my heart, which is of flesh and blood. Avot d’Rabbi Natan 6:2
I’m fond of the text…less because of its message promoting Torah study (though that’s good too!)…and more because of the powerful image it presents us with regarding the notion of change. The world, and the people that inhabit it, don’t change overnight. Change comes in minute amounts (like the occasional drip of water on a rock). And just when we stop paying attention, we realize that the shape of the rock has been molded thanks to that minute dripping. If we had trained a firehose on the rock for just a few minutes, it would have reflected the flood, and not been affected at all.
I write these words less than a week after returning from an intense and transformative journey abroad to the Dominican Republic with several extraordinary activist-faculty members from American Jewish World Service.
Over the course of a week’s worth of meeting and encounters with Dominicans who have been marginalized because of their poverty, gender, sexual orientation, skin color, occupation, or ancestral country of origin - I have witnessed with my own eyes the possibility of change. Our world can change. And the Dominican activists - my new friends - are changing it, one drip of water at a time. It is nothing short of a miracle to bear witness to the power of community organizing (and the generous financial support of a world-spanning NGO) in order to change the world to make it a better place.
But my travel wasn’t just about my witnessing the work of others, and the headline-worthy impact they are having. I also went on this journey to see about changing myself. I went to discover how I might turn my passion for teaching Torah into compassion for the suffering of others.
The midrash is revealing. It would have been foolish for me to think about my journey as analagous to the firehose. Sure, my trip was an immersive experience. But change doesn’t happen that way.
Instead, I’d like to think of my travel as a misty rain shower of water. Each opportunity I had over the course of my week to sit with a new Dominican friend and hear their remarkable story was like a drop of water against my all-too-hardened soul…I’m thinking of Ignacio the baseball star who dreams of signing the Major League contract that’s been offered to him but who can’t produce/procure identity papers…of Deivis the courageous LGBT advocate who is running in this May’s election as the first openly gay politician in the DR…and of the warm-hearted women inspired by the slain activist Mama Tingo, who keep her memory alive by advocating for the rights of women.
The drops of their “soft water” have changed me. But in barely perceptible ways. Only the passage of time will reveal exactly how the contours of my soul, and of my rabbinic vision, have changed. But there is no doubt in my mind: I have changed. I have been changed. Because of the stories I heard and the miracles I witnessed…thanks to them, I have changed.