> Spirituality > Personal Growth

Active Learning: Pirkei Avot 1:4

May 9, 2009 | by Howard Witkin

To truly understand Torah, philosophical principles need to be translated into action.

Yossi Ben Yo'ezer from Tzreida and
Yossi Ben Yochanon from Jerusalem
received the tradition from them.


Yossi Ben Yo'ezer from Tzreida said:
"Let your home be a gathering place for scholars,
get dusty (wrestle) in the dust of their feet,
and drink in their words with thirst."

This Mishnah continues to explain the foundations of the world, and focuses specifically on how to approach learning Torah. As stated earlier (1:2), Torah study is the fundamental tool for perfecting your relationship with yourself. Yossi Ben Yo'ezer offers practical advice on how to succeed in learning.

At first glance, Yossi Ben Yo'ezer's prescription for succeeding in Torah learning seems unusual. If you asked me how you could optimize the study of algebra, I might suggest working out more problems, spending more time in class, or getting a tutor. Inviting the math club to meet in your living room wouldn't be the intuitive recommendation. So what is Yossi Ben Yo'ezer suggesting ― "Let your home be a gathering place for scholars" ― and why is this the optimum approach?

Learn Like A Jew, Not A Greek

There is a tremendous gulf between the Jewish and Greek approaches to learning. The Greek ideal of a scholar is the philosopher. Greek intellectual endeavor centers on the acquisition of knowledge and the creation of elegant intellectual constructs. Greek scholarship was focused on the purity of knowledge, determination of ideal forms, and the definition of abstract systems of thought.

It is a remote, objective approach to intellectual endeavor.

By contrast, Jewish learning focuses not just on form, but on meaning and purpose. The Torah's focus is on realizing ideas which change your very nature. It is insufficient to merely grasp a concept in the abstract; you should understand its implications and consequences and strive to change accordingly. In the Torah ideal, every philosophical, ethical or moral principle should be translated into physical action and made manifest. Every action should be taken with an eye as to how it will change who you are and how you view your world.

There is a classic story of two rabbis exiled to the Soviet Union during World War Two. At the end of the war, they return to Berlin, penniless and without shelter. Hearing of a lecture at the university on the dangers of smoking, they decide to attend to gain a few hours of shelter and warmth. They sit dumbfounded through the lecture as a cigar-smoking German professor expounds on the evils of smoking.

Just because I lecture on geometry, must I become a triangle?

At the conclusion of the lecture, they approach the professor to ask how such powerful arguments could fail to move him. Incredulous, Herr Doktor Professor looks at the rabbis and says: "Just because I lecture on geometry, must I become a triangle?"

The good doktor's university training had taught him that there needn't be any connection between ideas and actions. His lectures and his learning were just words.

Learning Torah is not about creating elegant philosophical models; it is about refining your very nature. The goal of Torah learning is to provide you with the tools needed to lift your soul. For that end, Yossi Ben Yo'ezer's advice is exactly on target.

Make It Significant And Pervasive

"Quality time" just doesn't cut it. A few hours of occasional focused learning is ineffective in providing significant growth. The Torah presents a complete intellectual, moral, ethical and philosophical framework for living your life. If the Torah's system is going to elevate your life and refine your soul, it needs to be pervasive. It is not enough to spend a few hours here and there in a synagogue learning or attending classes. It's not enough to sit and skim pages in a book. You have to take the ideas and principles you learn and bring them into your daily life. You have to "live Torah."

If you create a barrier between religious and secular life, you rob Torah of its ability to change you.

If you create a barrier or separation between your "religious" and "secular" life and treat Torah as a mantle to slip on and off, you rob it of its ability to change you.

Your home is the center of your life. Ask yourself: What is the focus of my home? Do I spend every night watching TV? Do I spend all of my time with the sports section? Do I dedicate my Sundays to surfing the Internet?

Ultimately, you will fill your home and your life with whatever you treasure. If you really want to grow, surround yourself with an environment of learning. Furnish your home with books, and fill your life with people focused on spiritual and moral growth. Your home is where you raise your family and live your life. If you create an abiding atmosphere of growth and learning, you can't help but lift yourself, your spouse, your children and your community.

Wrestle In The Dust Of Their Feet

You'll never succeed if you are a dilettante. Remember, learning is not an abstract intellectual game. It is about understanding and implementing the fundamental principles which guide your life.

Why is it that you remember the content of conversations and arguments more readily than you remember lectures? Because you're involved in an argument. You have an emotional stake. It matters to you. Lectures are distant and remote and demand nothing of you. If you want to learn, you have to jump in, demand truth, and "wrestle" with the ideas until you are clear on what they mean.

Yossi Ben Yo'ezer saw two mistakes which keep students from becoming involved in their learning: Pride and Timidity. Our Mishnah addresses them both. Don't think that you are too good to learn from your teachers. If they have wisdom, and you want it, you'll sit at their feet and listen.

On the other hand, you can't just passively sit on the ground and blindly accept the "Truth" as it is taught. Yossi Ben Yo'ezer advises you to "wrestle in the dust of the scholars feet." Torah learning is based on feedback. It was never intended as a one-way stream of information flow. Only if you get actively involved with the ideas and wrestle with them until you have clarity, only then can you really grow.

Don't be passive about your learning. Be humble and get involved. If you find someone with a handle on Truth, dive in and get your share.

Be Surrounded, Involved And Passionate

Learning hinges on three factors: 1) It has to surround you and fill your life, 2) you can't be too haughty to listen or to shy to mix it up, and 3) you have to want it.

Without all three, it doesn't really matter how many books you read or how many classes you go to. Torah isn't about accumulating factlets; it's about spiritual, moral and personal growth. No matter how true a concept, it cannot change you if you hold it distant, remain passive or act apathetic. You have to be passionate and involved. You have to surround yourself with learning.

Do you want to sleep walk through life?

If you see learning as the gathering of pithy sayings, or the memorialization of quaint rituals, then your Torah is stale, dry and lifeless. As with the German professor, there is no link between your words and your actions. Truth needs to be acquired with passion. It's not a game; it's the real thing.

You were created to learn and grow ― and now all of the marbles are at stake. Do you care? Do you really want to sleep walk through life? Do you enjoy being clueless?

If Bill Gates and Warren Buffet were sitting in your living room teaching you how to get wealthy, would you sit in the back corner and smile shyly? No. If what they are saying is important, you'll get up close and listen. You will sit right at their feet and be enraptured by every idea.

How much more so for teachers of life. As Yossi Ben Yo'ezer says, you will "drink in their words with thirst."


🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram