What Does a Learner Look Like? A Pre-Shavuot Lesson Plan

Essential Questions:

What does a successful Torah learner look like?

How might Torah learning transform our lives?

Learning Outcomes:

Learners will articulate some of the ways that Jewish sources relate to the ideal learner of Torah.

Learners will imagine what "good" or "ideal" Torah learning might look like.

Learners will suggest experiences or aspects of study that might make Torah learning transformative in their own lives.

Learning Activities:

This lesson plan was designed to be used for young adult learners. Each source should be read aloud by the teacher or by one of the students, and then discussed.

Alternatively, hevruta time may be incorporated into the lesson by providing 5-10 minutes for the students to study the source and discuss the questions in pairs or small groups before the group conversation begins.

Optional Final Activity:

Ask students to take pictures that they feel capture what Torah learning means in their lives, and invite them to post those photos on a gallery sheet in Sefaria (click here for a sheet that you can copy and use for this purpose. Click into edit mode, and use the file menu to copy the sheet. On your new sheet, use the blue "share" button in the righthand corner to ensure that the sheet is set to "anyone can add." Then, share the URL with students! They can add by clicking on the plus button on the page or using the "insert" menu and selecting "media." Images can be uploaded directly from any computer).

Click here to access a copy of the sheet with just sources and discussion questions to distribute to students (without teacher instructions).

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעולָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְותָיו וְצִוָּנוּ לַעֲסוק בְּדִבְרֵי תורָה:

Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us to be involved with words of Torah.

Jewish texts describe learning Torah as a central component of Jewish life. The daily blessing to be recited before learning Torah uses the Hebrew word "la'asok" - to be involved with. The mitzvah is not merely to spend time with Jewish texts or to absorb information, but be actively engaged with the words of our tradition. This text study explores what that might look and feel like, and why this kind of engagement could be valuable in our lives.

Source #1: Picture a Scholar

The image of the Torah scholar is a familiar one to those of who regularly inhabit Jewish spaces. What do you picture when you picture a Torah scholar? What does the activity of studying Torah look like in your mind's eye?

Seattle Hebrew Academy, Seattle, Washington, 2009, courtesy of the Covenant Foundation.

Image copyright Zion Ozeri and used with the permission of the photographer. You can see more of his amazing images here.

Look carefully at this image, from Israeli photographer Zion Ozeri, and discuss:

Who are the people in this picture? What backstory would you ascribe to them? Be sure to explain what details of the photograph support your assumptions.

How would you describe what these people are doing?

What feelings or mood does the photograph evoke for you? Why?

Some points you may want to consider as you follow your students' ideas and thoughts:

- The women in this picture seem to be intently discussing Jewish texts. There are multiple texts open on the table in front of them. This reflects the common practice in Jewish text study of putting texts in dialogue with one another.

- Their body language indicates a high level of engagement with the text/teacher (tilted heads, leaning forward, pointing to the place on the page). This connects us back to the idea of לעסוק - to engage with Torah. These learners are active, not passive.

- The group of learners is small in this image, suggesting a kind of intimacy or group bond that may be a function of intense Torah study - they are all invested in the same text and/or learning goals.

- The learners in this photo seem to be in a library, with what looks like secular books surrounding them. This may evoke the feeling that their activity is distinct from other kinds learning, or it may suggest the ways in which it fits in to that larger context.

- There are no outside indicators of "Jewishness" in this photo - no head covering or other religious gear. Perhaps there is a sense that Torah study is something any Jew can choose to engage in, regardless of observance level.

- This is an all-female Torah study group. This may or may not elicit comment from your students, depending on their familiarity with the idea of the male Torah scholar or their exposure to a culture that privileges male Torah study. You can choose whether or not to raise this dimension if they do not.

Source #2: Ivory Tower vs. Field Work

Sometimes we might think of scholars as people who spend their time on the theoretical rather than the practical. It is easy to imagine intense intellectual devotion that has no discernible impact on the world. In the source below, the Talmud presents a different image: That of the learner-activist.

וכבר היה רבי טרפון וזקנים מסובין בעלית בית נתזה בלוד נשאלה שאילה זו בפניהם תלמוד גדול או מעשה גדול נענה רבי טרפון ואמר מעשה גדול נענה ר"ע ואמר תלמוד גדול נענו כולם ואמרו תלמוד גדול שהתלמוד מביא לידי מעשה

And there already was an incident in which Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were reclining in the loft of the house of Nit’za in Lod, when this question was asked of them: Is study greater or is action greater? Rabbi Tarfon answered and said: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered and said: Study is greater. Everyone answered and said: Study is greater, as study leads to action.

Questions for Discussion:

If you had been in Nit'za's house, which way would you have voted, and why?

What does this resolution tell you about the way these rabbis think about the activity of Torah study?

What might Torah study that leads to action look and feel like?

Some points you may want to consider as you follow your students' ideas and thoughts:

- Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva are rabbis from the time of the Mishnah. This conversation is taking place very early in Jewish history, and really at the very beginning of the rabbinic period, and so could be formative in determining the role of study.

- There is an irony in the resolution of this debate, in which the very learned rabbis who have spent many years studying Jewish texts agree that study is greater, but also incorporate the other side of the debate by stipulating that study leads to action. You may choose to explore this irony, and to hear both sides of the debate.

- Not all study leads to action. Help your students think about the specific ways in which study can lead to action, and what that kind of study would feel like for them.

Source #3: Transformational Torah

This Mishnah describes the learner of Torah in glowing terms. The picture here is of a learner as someone who has a positive impact on those around them and is a better person as a result of their learning. This source helps us think through the potentially transformational nature of Torah study.

...רַבִּי מֵאִיר אוֹמֵר כָּל הָעוֹסֵק בַּתּוֹרָה לִשְׁמָהּ, זוֹכֶה לִדְבָרִים הַרְבֵּה. וְלֹא עוֹד אֶלָּא שֶׁכָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ כְדַי הוּא לוֹ. נִקְרָא רֵעַ, אָהוּב, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַמָּקוֹם, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת, מְשַׂמֵּחַ אֶת הַמָּקוֹם, מְשַׂמֵּחַ אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת. וּמַלְבַּשְׁתּוֹ עֲנָוָה וְיִרְאָה, וּמַכְשַׁרְתּוֹ לִהְיוֹת צַדִּיק וְחָסִיד וְיָשָׁר וְנֶאֱמָן...

...Rabbi Meir said: Whoever occupies himself with the Torah for its own sake, merits many things; not only that but they are worth the whole world. They are called beloved friend; one that loves God; one that loves humankind; one that gladdens God; one that gladdens humankind. And the Torah clothes that person in humility and reverence, and equips them to be righteous, pious, upright and trustworthy...

Questions for Discussion:

How is Rabbi Meir picturing the ideal Torah scholar? How might this be similar to or different from your initial image of a Torah scholar? How is this ideal reflected or not reflected in the image we looked at?

What kind of Torah study would produce this kind of person? What might that kind of study look or feel like?

Have you ever engaged in Torah study that you felt might make you a better person? If so, share that story.

Some points you may want to consider as you follow your students' ideas and thoughts:

- It is interesting to note that there is both a bein adam lamakom (relationship between people and God) and bein adam lacheveiro (relationship between people and other people) aspect in these descriptions. Someone who learns Torah is kind to others and close to God.

- This text may relate to the idea that study leads to action, as the text indicates that this is a person with real involvement in the world. Or perhaps there's no need for specific actions to be connected with this depiction, merely that a person has better qualities because they are a learner.

- We've all experienced learning that is dry and flat instead of rich and inspiring. Help the students imagine what learning could be like if it were to produce this kind of enlightened, involved, kind scholar-friend.

Source #4: Journeying to a Divine Encounter

Rabbi Soloveitchik (1903-1993) was an important American rabbi, philosopher, and Torah scholar. In this essay, he provides us with two images: The first is of Torah as a princess, daughter of the Divine. Setting up time to spend with this princess is the only way to access the Divine presence. The second image is of the learner as a traveler. Studying Torah is a journey that fills us with knowledge but also with love.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik: Torah and Shekhinah in Family Redeemed: Essays on Family Relationships pp. 172-178

Talmud Torah is not just acquisition of knowledge but a personal meeting of the Jew with the Torah...

God...in this case disguised as Mother Shekhinah, never separated Herself from Her daughter; veiled in humble anonymity, She accompanies Her daughter princess, the Torah. She is present wherever Her princess happens to be. Can one meet the Mother Shekhinah alone without having a date with Her daughter? No! Whoever is eager to invite Mother Shekhinah must first set up a meeting with Her daughter, the princess..."When two sit together and engage in Torah, God's Shekhinah rests upon them" (Berakhot 6a).

The mitzvah of talmud Torah begins as an intellectual activity which requires exertion, concentration, absorption, a trained logical mind. The aim of this activity is acquisition of knowledge. However, once the activity is initiated it turns into a great total experience of meeting Shekhinah, of having a rendezvous with God. The Jew studying Torah is like a traveler who, within sight of the initial goal, stops to take a breath and then continues with new strength upon his endless journey toward an unknown destination. Knowledge alone, at first very much desired, does not satisfy any more; he is in love with the Shekhinah.

Questions for Discussion:

Consider the images of the Torah learner that Rabbi Soloveitchik constructs. What resonates with you? What doesn't?

What kind of Torah study would produce this kind of person or this kind of feeling? What might that kind of study look or feel like?

Have you ever engaged in Torah study that made you feel any of the emotions described in this source? If so, share that story.

Some points you may want to consider as you follow your students' ideas and thoughts:

- This text introduces multiple images to represent the learner - and the Torah. One is of a person who wants to meet the Divine. The Torah is Her daughter, and you can't get to know the Divine without meeting her daughter. In this image, the Torah can also be present in a conversation with a friend, and then the Divine presence visits them.

- Another image presented in this text is that of the learner as a traveler. At first, this traveler has a specific destination in mind, but ultimately, the journey itself is what provides joy. This is so different from how study is conceived in most institutions, where the outcome - the test, the degree, or the job - is what really counts. This traveler / learner could be happy to spend hours, months, or years engaged in the journey!

- This text also describes how something that starts out as an intellectual exercise turns into a rendezvous with the Divine. Perhaps this brings together the image of the learner as one going to meet the Divine and the image of the traveler, embarking on a journey. In the end, both have a dramatic rendezvous. It is interesting to think about where that change takes place, and what spark pushes learning beyond the intellectual into something more all-encompassing.