Monday, January 13, 2014

Imprisoned Knowledge

12 Shvat, 5774
January 13th, 2014

Sometimes, knowledge can be a prison. Rabbi Eleazer, one of the great teachers of the Mishna (200 C.E.), was known for his encyclopedic knowledge. His teacher described him as a “cistern that never loses a drop.” (Avot 2:8)

But as he was dying, he called out, “Woe to my arms that are like two rolled up Torah scrolls.” (Talmud Sanhedrin 68a)

 “Rolled up,” he said, as in unused, put away, unread. His great knowledge died with him.

The problem isn’t acquiring knowledge. We live in a city and nation of smart, knowledgeable people. Experts abound.

The problem is passing that knowledge on to others. We aren’t exactly awash in a surfeit of curiosity. Even the most brilliant thinker has to learn how to transmit knowledge. Otherwise the learning acquired over a lifetime stays trapped within the mind that acquired it. Every teacher will spend the majority of her life working to cross the divide between the knowledge trapped inside her and the students waiting to receive it. All teaching is a prison break.

Which brings us to the role of the student. The Talmud also teaches, “No prisoner can free himself from prison.” (Talmud Brakhot 5b) As adult students, we cannot rely on an expert’s teaching ability. Great wisdom doesn’t always come with great presentation.  Our job is to nurse a hunger for knowledge, and to learn to reach out to those who possess it, no matter how, or in whom, it is contained.

This is the difference between passive and active learning, and the reason why Jewish learning is never quiet. Never just receive knowledge; reach out, with your voice, your arguments, all the force of your mind, to engage with your teacher and make sure that the learning is passed from one person to another. 

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