Become dirty in the dust of their feet. How so? When a Torah scholar enters the city, do not say: I don’t need him. Instead, go to him. And do not sit next to him on a bed, or on a chair, or on a bench. Rather, sit before him on the ground, and accept upon yourself every word that comes from his mouth with fear and reverence, trembling and sweating, just as our forefathers accepted what they heard at Mount Sinai with fear and reverence, trembling and sweating.
Another explanation: Become dirty in the dust of their feet: This refers to Rabbi Eliezer; And drink in their words thirstily: This refers to Rabbi Akiva.
What were the origins of Rabbi Akiva? They say that he was forty years old and had still not learned anything. Once, he was standing at the mouth of a well and he said: Who carved a hole in this stone? They said to him: It is from the water, which constantly [falls] on it, day after day. And they said: Akiva, don't you know this from the verse (Job 14:19), “Water erodes stones”? Rabbi Akiva immediately applied this, all the more so, to himself. He said: If something soft can carve something hard, then all the more so, the words of Torah, which are like steel, can engrave themselves on my heart, which is but flesh and blood. He immediately went to start studying Torah. He went with his son and they sat down by the schoolteachers. He said to one: Rabbi, teach me Torah! He then took hold of one end of the tablet, and his son took hold of the other end. The teacher wrote down aleph and beit for him, and he learned them (aleph to tav, and he learned them; the book of Leviticus, and he learned it). And he went on studying until he learned the whole Torah. Then he went and sat before Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua. My masters, he said, open up the sense of the Mishnah to me. When they told him one law, he went off and sat down to work it out for himself. (This aleph – what was it written for? That beit – what was it written for?) Why was this thing said? He kept coming back, and kept asking them, until he reduced his teachers to silence. Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said: I will give you a parable to tell you what this was like: Like a stonecutter who was hacking away at the mountains. One time he took his pickaxe in his hand, and went and sat on top of the mountain, and began to chip small stones away from it. Some people came by and asked him: What are you doing? He said to them: I am going to uproot the mountain and throw it into the Jordan! They said to him: You cannot uproot the entire mountain! But he kept hacking away, until he came to a big boulder. So he wedged himself underneath it, pried it loose, and threw it into the Jordan. And he said to it: Your place is not here, but there! This is what Rabbi Akiva did to Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Tarfon. Rabbi Tarfon said to him: Akiva, it is about you that the verse says (Job 28:11), “He stops up the streams so that hidden things may be brought to light.” For Rabbi Akiva has brought to light things which are kept hidden from human beings.
Every day, he would bring a bundle of sticks, half of which he would sell to support himself and half he would use for kindling. His neighbors came and said to him: Akiva, you are choking us with all this smoke. Sell it all to us instead, and then buy oil with the money, and study by the light of a candle. He said to them: But I take care of many of my needs with it. I study [by its light]. I warm myself [by its fire]. And then I can [make it into a bed and] sleep on it.
All the poor will one day be judged against Rabbi Akiva, for if one says to them: Why did you never study? [And they say: Because] we were poor! then we will say to them: But wasn’t Rabbi Akiva even poorer, completely impoverished? [And if they say: It is because of our babies, we will say: But didn’t Rabbi Akiva] have sons and daughters as well? (But they will say: It is because) he merited to have his wife Rachel [to help him].
He was forty years old when he went to study Torah, and after thirteen years, he was teaching Torah to the masses. It was said that he did not leave the world until he had tables full of silver and gold, and he could go up to his bed on golden ladders. His wife would go out in a fancy gown and with golden jewelry with an engraving of Jerusalem on it. His students said: Rabbi, you are embarrassing us with what you have done for her. He said to them: She suffered greatly with me for the sake of Torah.