I’m teaching more classes this time around than ever before. I’m doing so not because I need to fill my schedule, but because I truly enjoy the “give and take” of Torah learning. There is a wonderful dimension in our tradition whereby we study certain texts over and again, and they continue to teach us. The text doesn’t change; we do. And we are able to gain further insight into our lives.
The classes also become spiritual exercises. There is an exchange of ideas and an exchange of life experiences that brings people closer to each other. A connection is found in some of these classes. It happens not only through the exchange of ideas, but having open ears and hearts. A study partner is a chaveir, a study group is a chevrutah, and these words not only refer to that experience, but also friendship – or a tie – that bonds people together. And that is the essence of religion. Religion is literally from a Latin root that means “connection.”
That is why I find that learning is one of the core dimensions of Jewish community. Through learning, we begin to find a space where we grow perspective. It’s not always what we think; we have to look at and hear what others think. In learning, we hopefully create the capacity to see things from another’s place. And that is the beginning of peace. The prophet Isaiah taught that “when our children are taught of Adonai, they experience peace.” We know that in order to resolve conflict, we need to be able to see what the other sees. It’s true in our closest relationships, and it’s true in the world.
But learning is not the only core value. Tzeddakah, understood as acts of righteousness and giving, as well as chesed, understood as human kindness, form pillars of our value system. The point is that our learning should not remove us from the reality of life, but rather inspire us to engage in the world with kindness and responsibility. There’s a wonderful teaching in the Mishnah that states that doing acts of kindness and studying Torah has no prescribed measure. And in a teaching in the Talmud, we learn that there are certain things that give us rewards in this world and in the world to come. The list includes honoring our parents, helping the needy, providing hospitality, and other really important deeds to make the world better. But the teaching ends: “Talmud Torah Keneged Kuloam.” The study of Torah is the most basic of all. The hope is that learning is infused with values and raises the standard of living.
But learning can have a downside when it becomes closed. That is why we are taught that the study hall should have windows. And that is why, today, we infuse our Torah learning with insights and information from all sources – history, psychology, anthropology, science, medicine, culture and the arts, and certainly our own experiences.
Recently, I was teaching a group of young high school kids a section from the Torah that concerned itself with the search for a wife for Isaac. We learned why Rebecca was chosen. It led to a conversation that asked the kids to think about the qualities of the person they would want to marry one day. I realized that these kids had never thought of that question, and it’s important to begin to think about that. Learning opens us to questions about values and decision making that we don’t always ask ourselves, but often should.
In this week’s parshah, we continue reading about Joseph and his brothers. We relive the scene when Joseph packs the brothers’ sacks with silver and coins. He gave them cattle and grain to take back to their father. As they say goodbye, Joseph says to them: “Don’t be quarrelsome along the way.” The great biblical commentators ask what they would quarrel about. One says that they have new found wealth and that makes people quarrelsome. But Rashi says they may fight about ideas. They may quibble about points of law.
I believe our learning is meant to create peace, not always agreement. Sometimes there needs to be – and there are – lively disagreements. But we do it with respect. I see it as bringing people closer. I see it as createing humility. I see it allowing connections to be made. I see it as creating a stronger community.
As January approaches, we will have even more course offerings. Melton continues. We begin the next Hartman iEngage series. And we have ongoing lunch and learns, as well as Hebrew, bible, prayer and history classes. Come join us!
See you in shul,
Rabbi David Steinhardt
This column is dedicated to the memory of Rubin Shafran z”l