Divre Harav – January/2018

Hillel says, “Do not say that something is impossible to understand, because ultimately you will understand; and do not say when I have time I will study, lest you are never have time.” Pirke Avot 2:5b

When my children were young, it would occasionally happen that they had a school assignment that was particularly difficult for them and after a few minutes of struggling to figure it out, they would give up. I had to teach them persistence – that there is value in the struggle, that hard work and time will usually elicit results.

Let’s agree up front that there are some things that are beyond our ability to solve. A person drawn to a career in business or educated in liberal arts will probably never be capable of solving problems of mathematical topography or theoretical physics. But a good teacher should be able to explain it to me so that I can understand the principle behind very complicated math or physics.

In most areas of learning, if we put in enough time and effort, we can figure it out and reach a level of understanding. But it isn’t easy. It easier to put it away until later and turn on the football game, kill some virtual invaders, or escape into someone else’s reality. Procrastination is an insidious affliction. If we’re tired, who can argue if we want to take a break? We’ll finish the project later. But when we walk away, unless we have a specific time when we’ve committed to return, there’s always something to distract us and keep us from coming back.

Hillel understood the nature of procrastination, and that’s why he urged us to set time aside at regular intervals to study. I have a weekly Hevruta with a rabbi from Denver. We have set aside an hour on Wednesday mornings to learn together, and I also set aside time earlier in the week to prepare for our learning. Because it is a near-sacred hour on my calendar, only to be moved when it is unavoidable, I rarely miss a week. Part of the power of Hevruta learning is that he is counting on me and I am counting on him. So I can’t just cancel on a whim because I don’t want to disapoint my friend. An additional benefit to Hevruta learning is the chance to learn from someone different than oneself. I study with a Reconstructionist rabbi. We’re approximately the same age, but his rabbinical training and career experience are completely different than mine, and so too the lessons he bring out of the text we study together are different than the lessons I learn.

Talmud Torah is a mitzvah, learning Torah is one of the sacred obligations of a Jewish life. The goal of our Beit Midrash dinners is to encourage you to engage yourself in this mitzvah, to spend some time studying, and to give you the opportunity to experience Hevruta study. The next dinner is scheduled for Monday night, January 22. You must RSVP to attend, to me at Rabbi@AhavasIsraelGR.org or 949-2840. I hope to see you here.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Hevruta – a study partner
  • Limmud – study
  • Talmud Torah – Torah study; sometimes, an institution of Torah study
  • Torah Lishma – learning for its own sake, as opposed to learning for practical use
  • Beit Midrash – Place of study.
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Psalm 148

“He commanded and they were created.” (148:5)

What power this is, the power to express a desire and know that people will make it happen! This is a power I associate with the very rich or the very rich and powerful CEO who can afford to hire people to take care of every expressed wish. It is a god-like power, one that may seduce the user with delusions of divinity. I am far more impressed by the rich and powerful who have the humility to do things for themselves and others, than I am of seeing them pass the tasks off to their minions.

Psalm 147

“He counts the number of the stars; He names them all.” (147:4)

Dale Carnegie said, ““A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” To be able to recall a name and use it in conversation, to greet a person by name, to remember names of people we meet, are signs of caring at a deep level. Jewish tradition discourages us from counting people, thinking, perhaps, that to count them is to assign them an impersonal number rather than acknowledging their uniqueness with a name.

Psalm 146

“Put not your trust in the noble.” (146:3)

It is hard to avoid the trap of celebrity worship. There is something electric about being in the company of the influential, the powerful, and the famous. When we are in the company of politicians, actors, entertainers, or the uber-wealthy, we can be overwhelmed by the aura of their physical presence. They have talents and abilities and the power to get things done over and above that of the average mortal. Yet they also have outstanding moral faults and failures, just like every other human being. So value them for their abilities, but worship them not!

Psalm 138

“You overwhelm my soul with strength.” (138:3)

Most people are capable of handling whatever set of challenges they receive. It is not so much that “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” than it is simply that most of us do what we need to do. We might not have thought that we were capable of handling such a challenge, and in hindsight, we might wonder how we accomplished it. We did it because we had no other choice, and because at any point that we thought we could do no more, we summoned the extra strength to finish the job because we had to.