The Joys of Life-long Learning

Hazzan Notes, The Scroll, June  2013 

On this past May 11, at Shabbat morning services, we called 27 Adat Shalom members* to the bimah to be honored as they completed an 18 month program that we called, “Yesodot HaLimud” or “Foundations of Learning.” This was a first-run program developed to offer a rigorous, adult-level learning opportunity for those who wanted to deepen their Jewish knowledge and understanding. Using TaNaKh [Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets), Khetuvim (Writings) = the Hebrew Bible] as our centerpiece, we studied text, learned the history and meaning of prayers, practiced prayer musical modes, learned the Hebrew roots of common words in the siddur and stole some time to process all the learning in small groups. The commitment of time and energy on the part of the students was inspiring. They have families, jobs, homes, and lots of other demands, but they chose to spend this time in study. And no one made them do it!

The idea for the class first came to me when I noticed that, often, the parents of bar and bat Mitzvah students were as interested as their kids, if not more, in our discussions about the parasha (section of Torah), about this history we know or about cross-references between the Torah and the siddur. While many of these parents had been called to the Torah themselves at age 13 and were already of cially bar or bat mitzvah, encountering a piece of Jewish learning as adults naturally calls forth a different response than at age 12 or 13. As adults, we have a treasure trove of life experiences to help us see our ancient texts in ways we cannot with just 10 or 12 years behind us. I turned to Myrna Seidman, our long-time member, leader, past-president and learning enthusiast and together we dreamt up our vision of a program for these and other adults in our community.

In Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Ancestors, a tractate of the Talmud, we read, “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.” (5:22) In other words, keep turning the Torah — here writ large, meaning not just the scroll itself, but all of Jewish learning — over and over because with each passing season of our lives comes new ability to gain wisdom from the sacred texts. Reading as adults, the texts can sometimes sparkle with light, or sometimes shake us to our core. But it may take a long time to get to that level of connection. Our childhood learning, while it should awaken delight and curiosity, is not an end itself, but rather the preparation for our mature learning. Sending our children to religious school, to bar Mitzvah lessons, is our attempt to give them a Jewish toolbox for further learning — at 13, the best is still yet to come, by far! If I didn’t know that before, our Yesodot HaLimud program taught me that in spades.

When we reach the end of each book of the Torah in the synagogue, it is the custom for the community to stand and chant, “hazak, hazak v’nit-hazek” “[let us be] strong, strong and we will be strengthened.” What I learned from our program is how much learning together is a powerful ingredient in building community. As I said to the graduates during the service, the Talmud teaches this in a conversation between sages about learning in community. They ask how many are required to sit together to awaken the Divine Spirit: Ten? Three? Two? The sages say that if a person has enough focus, even one person alone could awaken that spirit, but that for most mortals, you need at least two people to form a learning community. With 27 in our group, there were a lot of holy sparks ying around, sometimes when you least expected it. Like 27 small pebbles dropped into the whole pond of our community, there must be ripples — hopefully inspiration for all of us to continue nding ways to encounter one another in the crucible of the text.

I salute our first group of Yesodot HaLimud learners. They’ve taught me a great deal.

Brachot v’hoda’ot  (Blessings and Gratitude),

Hazzan Rachel

*Yesodot HaLimud Graduates: Isabel Berman Eileen Brandy Rachel Dagovitz Jayme Epstein Jackie Goldberg Deena Goldsmith Amy Jaslow Luther Jett Cheryl Kollin Malka Kutnick Phyllis Lerner Tamar Lieberman Carol Lite Audrey Lyon Penina Maya Marshall Mazer Evi Rezmovic Lauren Randel Beth Sperber Richie Joanna Robin Audrey Rothstein Jen Sherman Cheryl Silver Joan Spirtas Ruth Spodak Marilyn Kresky-Wolff Mark Wolff