Sermon Parshat Bamidbar 5779
Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona
There is a popular myth that Eskimos have 50 different names for snow. British singer Kate Bush even titled one of her albums, “50 Words for Snow.” In fact, there are many words in Aleut, Inuit and other Eskimo languages for snow, which is reasonable considering their environment; it certainly snows a lot up there in the still-frozen north. Even more dramatically, the native peoples of Norway, Sweden and Finland, the Sami peoples, use languages that have perhaps 180 snow- and ice-related words and as many as 300 different words for types of snow. Each of the words for snow has a somewhat different meaning, distinguishing differences in the type, intensity and even the shape of the ice crystals in the snow. Most of us hot weather habitués would not be able to delineate even a fraction of those distinctions.
Based on the weather predictions for the next week, we probably should have at least 50 words for “hot” here in Tucson…
Well, if Eskimos and Samis know snow, we Jews, instead, have a plethora of words for education, and nearly all of our sacred texts are named for a variation of learning or teaching. The word Torah means, literally, instruction. The words for the great texts of Jewish law, the Mishnah and Gemara and the Talmud that encompasses them, mean, respectively, memorized learning, completed learning, and just, well, learning. The name for the great text of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, means, “to enlighten.” The term “rabbi” translates to master teacher. The word for parents, Horim, means instructors. Knowledge is Da’at, from the word Yadah, knowing. Seichel means intelligence, used for both learning and teaching. A meivin is one who understands and can therefore teach others. Even the holiday of Chanukah comes from the word chinuch, which means education. And so on. Learning and teaching are the essential concepts of our tradition.
We see this in folk wisdom as well. There is an ancient Jewish joke from the days when the Rothschild family was the standard for wealth in the world. The Rothschilds were the Warren Buffets, the Bill Gates, the Jeff Bezos’ of the world for 200 years. The joke goes like this: a man says to his friend, “If I were Rothschild, I’d be richer than Rothschild.” And his friend says, “Richer than Rothschild? How would you be richer than Rothschild?” And he answers, “Because I’d do a little teaching on the side.”
While the stereotype for a Jewish professional today is doctor or lawyer or accountant, the truth is that the most Jewish job of all is teacher. Since learning in Judaism is so central, the job of teaching is critically important, the paradigmatic Jewish activity.
Which makes this coming holiday of Shavu’ot, which begins tomorrow night at 8pm right here, a unique opportunity to explore just what it means to do Jewish learning. Tomorrow night we will set out lots of cheesecake and other goodies to eat, brew a pot of coffee, conduct a short Shvu’os festival evening service at 8pm, and then start studying. How late we go will depend on our endurance. The Tikun Leil Shavu’ot, the study session the night of Shvu’os is a Jewish education marathon, or perhaps, depending on the variety of texts the rabbi chooses, a triathlon or even a decathlon. The idea is Torah Lishma, learning truly for its own sake because in Judaism learning in and of itself is virtuous.
And of course, in a Jewish family, our children are supposed to all excel in school. When I was a kid if I brought home a report card with 5 A’s and one A-, or God-forbid a B+, the first thing my mom or dad would say was, “What happened with the A-?” I was the third child out of four in my family. By the time I came along the formula was simple: if you got all A’s you got to go out for a special meal with mom and dad. If not, no special meal. No ambiguity there. Not only learning, but excelling at learning was expected. I suspect many of you had similar experiences growing up.
But why is that true? What is there about knowledge that makes it so inherently valuable to Jews?
This may seem so obvious that it can easily be parodied—in the movie Animal House what was the motto of Faber College? “Knowledge is Good?”—but actually it’s not really so obvious as all that, nor is the idea that learning is the central value a universally shared concept, either in other religious traditions or in politics or society. In Christianity, for example, the central principle and highest value is faith, not knowledge. In Islam the greatest goal is submission to the will of God. In Buddhism enlightenment can just as surely come from experience as knowledge. And even among the Jewish Chasidim, like Chabad, the appeal is to the simple story and the basic act, the mitzvah and the maiseh, rather than the great depth of the learning.
Although many religious traditions emphasize the virtue of scholarship, there have been plenty of times when religions actually suppressed literacy in the interest of heightening faith. Do you know why medieval cathedrals had such fabulous stained glass windows? It’s because those images told the stories of the Bible in ways the illiterate population, rich and poor alike, could understand, since they couldn’t actually read the text of the Bible for themselves. There were extremely important kings and emperors who were totally illiterate: Charlemagne, for example, and Genghis Khan. In fact, in America for a long time schooling was considered an extravagance, a foppish concern of the wealthy that distracted from farming or ranching or being a mechanic or settling and expanding the nation. Abraham Lincoln had perhaps three years of organized schooling in his whole life; his father certainly didn’t believe in it when he was growing up, and so he became an auto-didact, a self-taught scholar of great accomplishment. But it wasn’t because his society encouraged that direction; not at all.
Even today there are many people, even those in very high places, who don’t think of education or knowledge as inherently valuable. Our American society demonstrates its appreciation for professions by rewarding them financially. Yet teachers are among the most poorly paid of all professions, aren’t they? So perhaps education isn’t so wonderful after all.
Another way of looking at it is to say that there are other values than education. While this would be a very hard sell to make to most Jewish parents—I grew up thinking college was like high school, you just automatically went after 12th grade—there are many virtues in the world, and lots of them don’t come out of a classroom or book or scroll or even a website. Faith, loyalty, honesty, integrity, courage, generosity, love, altruism, initiative, persistence, kindness, patience, fairness, justice, even creativity—it is not at all clear that these can be taught by a teacher in an academic setting.
Immanuel Kant said, "Virtue is the moral strength of the will in obeying the dictates of duty.” But the people that have virtue don’t usually think about Kant when they are acting well, and may not even know who Kant was. And that, in truth doesn’t matter, does it? They are virtuous anyway. And of course, while learning can advance society and civilization tremendously, sometimes it doesn’t work that way. The best-educated country in world in the 1930s, with the greatest institutions of higher learning, was Germany. Nazi Germany.
If this is true, why do we Jews love learning so very much, and push our kids so hard to become scholars? And why do we treasure libraries full of books and constantly teach, and have a Tikun Leil Shavu’ot to prove that even learning can be taken to excess, and by golly that’s exactly what we are going to do?
The answer comes from two areas. The first is the way that we Jews learn. The ideal of course is not what is happening right now: it is not sitting here listening while the rabbi, or anyone instructs you on what to do. Our model is not the lecture, nor even the sermon. It is hands-on, interactive and dynamic. It is learning by engagement: reading, thinking, analyzing and probing, and then arguing about a subject until we feel that we know it, it has become ours, and we have explored its possible interpretations fully. Only by using our minds actively, by wrestling with a subject the way that Jacob wrestled with God in becoming Israel, only then are we really doing Jewish learning properly. That is what Torah LiShma really means: literally learning for its own sake, but figuratively learning for our own sake, learning to sharpen and hone our minds and spirits. This kind of education helps us to become engaged, intelligent, aware critical thinkers. That, in itself, is considered a virtue in Judaism.
But although we love to focus on learning, the truth is that it is not enough to learn. There are other virtues of equal or perhaps greater importance, believe it or not, in our religion. And Judaism addresses these as well.
In the morning prayer just before the Shema, the Ahavah Rabbah, there is a passage that explains what we are commanded to do with the Torah, this learning document and teaching impetus, with which God has gifted us. So what are we supposed to do with the words of Torah? Lilmod ul’lameid, lishmor v’la’asot the prayer reads. We are commanded to learn and to teach, to observe and to do.
That is, we learn and we teach, of course, but we do so in order to observe and preserve, to keep the structure of Judaism. And we learn and teach, especially, in order to be able to do the mitzvot. First, because until you know what the mitzvot are, you cannot possibly do them, which means you have to learn them and see how they are applied. And secondly, because the good that comes from Torah, and from learning Torah, only comes when you actually do the things the Torah asks of you.
And so as we approach Shavu’ot, this z’man matan torateinu, the time when we were given our great teaching, we unite in study, in learning and teaching. We do so in order to unite as a community. And we do so to allow those imperatives of Torah, those commandments, those mitzvot, to guide and shape our lives in good and meaningful ways.
It is those words of Torah that drive us to help refugees; it is those words of Torah that teach us to care for the earth; it is those words of Torah that help us see the people around us, here, tonight as a community based in learning and compassion and love. It is those words of Torah that lead us to care for the sick, help the bereaved, celebrate with the bride and groom and bar and bat mitzvah. It is those words that we learn that remind us to give Tzedakah, to help with the needs of the synagogue and the community. It is those words that, yes, bring us early to the house of study. And it is those words of Torah that lead us to seek to perfect the world through this sacred learning.
May your study of Torah always be sweet, rich and good and may your insights into our tradition continue to be fresh and inspired. And may we all be blessed with lives of great Jewish learning, and of deeds inspired by that learning.