A People of Learning

These days I am very seriously learning what so many of you know all too well. Being a parent is one of the most wonderful things in the world, but it is also one of the most difficult things. The obligations and concerns are endless. There are so many ways I could enrich my children, care for them, and help them to prepare for a life as successful and contributing human beings and Jews.

Though responsibilities in parenting are many, the Talmud, on this rare occasion, attempts to make things a bit simpler. It teaches that parents are obligated to do but three things for their children: train their child in a trade, find their child a spouse, and teach their child to swim.

Simple, right? Except not really.

The third one, swimming, may be the only one we parents can effectively pull off today. If we ourselves know how to swim, we can teach our children the basics. And even if we don’t, we can probably find someone to give a few lessons. Finding a spouse? I think it’s safe to say that most of our children would be resistant to that one.

And teaching a trade may be one of more difficult tasks the Talmud assigns us. Though a parent may be able to teach a child what they themselves do professionally, what are the chances that the way the job is done now is the way that the job will be done by the next generation, or even a decade from now? Undoubtedly, technology will advance, and laws and guidelines will shift. Jobs might be sent overseas or even eliminated entirely. Chances are, few of us will be capable of sharing our trades or professions with our children. Chances are that schools will be unable to teach children everything they’ll need to know for a lifetime in the workforce. We are lucky if our skills and training for any given profession will stay relevant for even a few years.

I recently read a book by Thomas Friedman called Thank You For Being Late. In it Friedman explores the way the world is speeding up, moving faster, with most of us unable to fully keep up. More and more, people are feeling left behind, with their educations quickly outdated, their professions downsized, outsourced, or eliminated. People fear that the jobs they have, jobs that would have provided a predictable income 20 years ago, may not last for even a few years. By now, we have all most definitely heard the voices of those left behind, or at least heard about them, especially in the context of how influential they were all across the political spectrum in this past presidential election.

Friedman frames the reason for all these frustrations in a manner worth considering. He first discusses the concept of the “rate of change”— the time over which technologies and structures shift. The move from horse to steam power, the move to computing, or the age of the great internet cloud in the sky. While certain innovations—like a new farm tool—happened once every few centuries, since the industrial revolution and then far more in the recent years of the information age, changes have been happening exponentially faster, with far reaching implications. Human survival at every change has depended upon our ability to adapt — to change our behavior, learning, and skills, and even our social systems. Did you know that the Shulchan Arukh — the major law code for Judaism— arguably became the law code only because of a technological shift? Its publication happened to coincide with the rise of the printing press. We received a uniform legal system all throughout the Jewish world because something published could suddenly be disseminated in little time and over great distances.

Information now travels so quickly that even the 24-hour news cycle has become a thing of the past. Today we are living in what seems to be a 30-second news cycle.

Friedman argues that trouble has come because this rate of change is now moving faster than we can handle. It’s surpassing the human ability to adapt, meaning that with everything in constant movement and flux, the only people who will be able to keep up are those who themselves can be in constant movement. It is no longer the case that we can sit comfortably in what we’ve learned and hope that these skills will carry us through life. This fact is frustrating and overwhelming to so many, but it is the reality we are all facing, like it or not. And an effective, large-scale response is absolutely necessary for nothing short of holding society together.

Fortunately, Friedman has a solution: Lifelong learning!

And my initial thought? Yes! We have a committee for that!

Really though— Lifelong learning. Friedman’s case is that the issue right now is not a problem of training in a particular skill: it’s the focus of learning one skill rather than acquiring the skill of learning. It’s getting what we need at a single point in time and then remaining stationary, assuming that what we have learned is enough that is the problem for so many; in a world in flux, the most valuable asset we can have is the skill of continual learning, so that we can adapt whenever we need to.

Consider Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and specifically, the concept of the survival of the fittest. Who is it that always survives? Not the strongest or the fastest; it’s the one who can best adapt, who can learn, react, and change, and then do it all again.

Lifelong learning is what has enabled our Jewish civilization to survive for so many thousands of years, unlike every other civilization we’ve encountered through time. One of the first things that Moses implores us over and over and over again is that we teach our history to our children —V’shinantam L’vanekha. Our survival was dependent not on our making ourselves a nation of warriors, but a nation of educators. Indeed, one of the most common rituals observed among Jews is the Passover seder, involving the telling — the teaching — of our story and our values to our children. Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote in his edition of the Haggadah,

What Moses taught, and what the Jewish people came to discover, is that you achieve immortality not by building pyramids or statues — but by engraving your values on the hearts of your children and they on theirs, so that our ancestors live on in us, and we in our children, and so on until the end of time.

We Jews are not builders of monuments; we are builders of ideas. Our most valuable Jewish assets are not the great Jewish professions of medicine and law; they’re not even the Israeli military; they are the ideas and learning we hold at our core.

One of our most sacred texts in Judaism is the Talmud, a voluminous work that is not a collection of statements telling us what to do, but one of debate and disagreement and questioning. How have we honored such a collection? We’ve done so by surrounding it, on its very page, with more thoughts, questions and disagreements! And we honor this sacred text through the tradition and ritual of daf yomi — the practice of studying a Talmud page a day. Did you know that study in the Jewish tradition is in itself a ritual practice of equal importance to prayer? Al Shlosha D’varim, we sing at services. Upon three things does the world stand: Avodah or worship, G’milut Hasadim, acts of lovingkindness, and of course, Torah— learning.

While Moses’ initial instruction is oriented not on ourselves but our children, anyone who has ever been in the teacher’s seat knows that effective teaching requires full knowledge of the subject, an ability to take in any new information that comes along on the subject, and the capability to adapt to the many varying needs of our students, or our children. In other words, teaching others means learning for ourselves.

Though the ritual of learning focuses specifically on Torah and all subsequent Jewish sources, what’s clear from our history is that our culture of lifelong learning permeates all walks of life. It should not come as a surprise that the Jewish population remains one of the most highly educated populations. We have demonstrated, time and time again, that lifelong learning, as Tom Friedman has come to realize, is the key to success in life. It has been the key to our freedom and survival, and it is exactly what we need to thrive during this transition from a market of predictability to a world of flux.

Lifelong learning benefits us in other ways as well. It may one of the secrets to staying young. Engaging in regular learning means promoting neuroplasticity. When we keep our brains active and challenged, we keep making new synaptic connections, and we remain prepared for whatever may come. As children, we’re ready to experience and take in absolutely everything the world has to offer, but as adults, we tend to narrow our focus, tuning out a lot of the stimuli. Sometimes this is for good reason, to specialize and focus. Sometimes, though, we do so because it’s easier to relax and not think so much about things. But our brain is like any muscle. Use it or lose it. Brains can lose neuroplasticity as much as they gain it, which means that regular activity — regular challenging learning — will keep us ready for the times when we will need to do exactly that — more learning.

Lifelong learning is necessary at a much larger scale as well— not only for our survival, but the survival of this nation! As we’ve seen, the concepts of freedom and democracy never exist simply because they’re good ideas. They exist because we work at them. We continually express ourselves and challenge each other— engaging, compromising, and debating. It is the act of respectful debate that keeps democracy alive, and freedom requires not the sword, but imagination, agility, and will. These all stem from and lead back to continuous learning.

Lifelong learning is essential as well to good parenting — not just setting up learning for our kids, but us, as parents and adults, engaging in regular learning as well. If we’re going to instill in our children and teenagers a desire for lifelong learning, we need to be their examples.  There are many adults in our community who after fulfilling their obligation of leading their children to Bar and Bat Mitzvah have continued to show up for services and learning. Why have they come back? Because they’ve loved engaging with our texts and liturgies. But, they’ve received an unintended benefit as well—their children have an example in life of a genuine love for learning. When parents choose, without any requirement, to come to Temple because they want to engage in meaningful conversation, their children see that learning in its own right is something worthwhile. Which means that adults learning simply for the sake of learning help to raise the next generation with sacred values that will quite concretely enable them to survive and thrive.

But there’s one more reason why we might want to commit ourselves to lifelong learning: it is our Jewish inheritance! Rabbi Sacks writes about the time he was invited to deliver the St George’s Lecture at Windsor Castle. Finally, after much deliberation, he decided to speak about the importance of knowing one’s history. Addressing Prince Philip and his retinue, he taught that when we live in a place such as Windsor Castle, when such a magnificent historical edifice belongs in our family, we ought to know everything we can about it, as we’re proud of it and excited by it. We may wish to be its historian and be able to show off its rooms, passages, surprises, and secrets. We Jews have never really been blessed with castles. What we have been blessed with is Torah. Our teachings, our learnings, our principles. And it is this palace of learning that we have inherited that has blessed us, and that has kept us safer than any castle walls could have done.

Our salvation as a people, and as humanity, is in constant learning. This Yom Kippur, I know that many of us are thinking not only about the ways we could have done better this past year, but about what improvements we ought to make to do better this coming year. Our tradition demands that we make daily learning a part of our lives. Learning of the world, but also of our tradition. We are all busy, juggling many commitments,  and possibly even getting time to relax, but I guarantee that taking even 15 minutes a day for meaningful learning will bring so much value to our lives today and our futures ahead. And fortunately, here at the Temple we have a lifelong learning program that includes options that can be done anywhere and at any time, to accommodate the busiest of schedules.

Change, as we’ve explored these high holy days, is intimidating, difficult to manage, and stressful. It is one of the reasons for the fear we discussed on Rosh Hashanah that is causing so many problems. Though lifelong learning will not necessarily provide immediate answers, I do firmly believe it will give us and our children exactly what we need to live successfully in the world for the long term. I know this will be easier for some than others, as some of us haven’t spent time —haven’t had the time — to take part in a class or course of study in years. Some of us may even be intimidated to start in a community of so many learned people, feeling like we might appear to be the simple child of the Passover seder, and not even know what questions to ask.

Such was the case with one of the great rabbis of Jewish history, Rabbi Akiva. He was once considered a dull and lowly farmer, incapable of significant learning or sophistication — so much so that his wife Rachel’s father disowned herr for marrying a man of such seemingly-low aptitude. At the age of 40 however, Rachel, seeing Akiva’s true potential, sent him off to learn. Years later, Akiva returned to his community one of the greatest minds and teachers of his generation. Abraham, our ultimate ancestor, set off on a brand new challenge when God called to him, not in his youth, but at the ripe old age of 90. If Akiva can start at 40 and Abraham can at 90, I think every one of us here can manage some learning, wherever and whenever we are. And I guarantee, when we do, we will soon feel that sense of grounding so lacking in today’s world, and with that grounding, a thirst for more — the very thirst for learning that will carry us in today’s economy, and today’s world.

There is so much in this world that like it or not, we’re going to need to learn, and learn over again. Much of it is our inheritance. Let us be sure to claim what is ours this coming year. In doing so, we can be confident that we’ll be ready for all the great book of life holds.

Gamar Chatima Tovah.

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davidzvaisberg Written by:

David Vaisberg, originally from Montreal and Mississauga, Canada, serves as Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El of Edison, NJ and lives in Metuchen, NJ with his family.

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