Shaya Cohen -


Stages In Learning: From Obedience To Intellectual Engagement

A child does what he is told, in no small part because he does not understand the world very well. We teach by example and by edict. For example, we instruct children to wash their hands, even though they do not know anything of germs and disease vectors. A young child assumes that the parents have the answers.

But as a child grows up, they start to ask – and we start to explain. We do it for little things, like personal hygiene, and big things, like public behavior and formal events. This is as it should be. By the time children have reached adulthood, they should have a solid understanding of the choices they make, and why they make them. “Mommy said so” is an explanation, but it is not a suitable defense for someone standing on their own two feet.

We do not, generally, respect people who do not at least try to understand why they do what they do. There is a story (apparently apocryphal, but still instructive) of a pack of monkeys who are sprayed icy water when they climb a ladder, so they learn not to do that. Then the monkeys are replaced over time, until not a single monkey that was sprayed remains in the pack. And yet the monkeys refuse to climb the ladder. Indeed, they will attack any monkey who tries.

We are not supposed to be those monkeys. We are supposed to keep asking and thinking. Indeed, human adolescence seems designed to always test, every generation anew, the established customs and precepts of the previous generations. We should always be able to ask, “why do we do this?” Why, indeed?

Some of the answers that are offered are glib at best. Tevye’s classic cry of “Tradition!” makes for great musical theatre, but terrible theology. The playwright, like many undereducated Jews, missed the point entirely. There are much bigger and deeper reasons for the things we do, and they are there for the gleaning. But first we, like the growing child, need to ask those questions and not be afraid of figuring things out for ourselves.

The Torah tells us of a similar arc to that of a child’s intellectual development. It moves from the simple to the more sophisticated and considered explanations. It does so in the text. At Sinai, we were like children:

[Moses] took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All that G-d has spoken we will do and hear!”

Sinai is the intellectual birth of the nation (following the physical birth of the Exodus). It is when we start to receive instruction. And at that point, the perspective of the people was similar to a small child: “We will do what we have been told.” There is absolutely nothing wrong with this declaration, but it is a milestone on the road rather than the destination.

How do we know this? Because the last book in the Torah, Deuteronomy, introduces a new word, a word that does not appear in the text before Moshe’s last speech. The word is lamed, or “teach.” The word lamed is peppered throughout the book, appearing 17 times. And this is not mere blind instruction – when the word lamed is used, it is usually paired with an explanation!

Here is the first appearance of lamed:

And now, O Israel, give heed to the laws and rules that I am instructing (lamed) you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that G-d, the God of your fathers, is giving you.

See the explicit connection? Education is not merely instruction. It is for a specific purpose, a means to an end! The learning is there for a reason, not merely an appeal from authority. This is how the word appears throughout the Fifth book of the Torah, typically paired with an explanation or a purpose.

Today we are not pining to relive life in the wilderness, or the experience of Sinai, and certainly not for the Exodus. While we regularly reconnect and re-engage with those moments in our history, we also recognize that we are meant to grow up, to enquire and to think and to learn, so that our actions and words are as mindful and considered as possible. The Torah describes an arc, a growing of understanding that echoes that of any child reaching adulthood.

Keeping a Torah Law, for example, is much more powerful as and when we come to understand the symbolic values of those things. But the vast majority of people do not seek to understand the symbolic meaning of biblical commandments. Instead, they assume that the commandments are all given like parental instructions to a young child: “Do it because I say so.”

But the commandments are not meant to be blindly and unthinkingly observed. Every commandment can be understood and explained. And so we should strive to do just that.

We are supposed to see the Torah as the beginning of our story – from the pre-history of the nation in Genesis, through the Exodus and the time in the wilderness. That story is meant to carry on, into adulthood in the land G-d has chosen, into a world in which G-d may be so hidden that there is an open question whether or not He really exists at all. This is the world in which we are meant to grow so that we can be full partners with G-d in advancing this world. G-d wants what every parent seeks in their heart of hearts: to be able to respect and admire their own children as adults in their own right. We want our children to grow into friends.

This is why Torah learning, for a Jew, is a lifelong endeavor. The more we understand, the more we can grow to love and grow holy relationships with each other and with G-d. But first we must explicitly seek to grow beyond the questions of a child. Do not ask merely what we are supposed to do, but why we are supposed to do it!

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work]

Comments are welcome!

%d bloggers like this: