What Does a Learner Look Like?

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?

Look carefully at this image.

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?

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?

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 he is worth the whole world.He is called beloved friend; one that loves God; one that loves humankind; one that gladdens God; one that gladdens humankind. And the Torah clothes him in humility and reverence, and equips him 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.