Va’etchanan: Learning and Teaching

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Va’etchanan

It’s a beautiful summer day and I have good news for you: by the very
act of reading this email you are fulfilling a mitzvah straight from
this week’s Torah portion!

Which mitzvah, you might ask?

The mitzvah of Torah study, which [according to Sefer HaHinnuch, the
book of commandments we’ve been quoting a lot recently] is derived
from a rather well-known verse in this week’s portion, Va’etchanan.
The verse in question appears as part of the first paragraph of the
prayer known as “Shma,” which tells us to:

“impress [these words] upon your children, recite them when you stay
at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up.
. . . ” (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 6:7)

Although the general idea of learning and studying Torah is stated or
implied else where in D’varim, the rabbis see the mitzvah of “teaching
your children” including the act of study- because if you do not
study, how can you teach? There’s even an interpretation that
“children” here actually means “students,” because students are called
“children” in this regard.

So this is interesting: Torah study, which in some ways is the
foundational spiritual practice of the Jewish religion, is actually
derived from a verse which speaks of teaching, not learning. [Please
note, “Torah” is to be understood not in the narrow sense, as the five
first books of the Bible, but in its broadest sense, as Jewish sacred
teaching or text.]

We are not all teachers professionally, but if every Jew has the
obligation to learn in order to teach, that seems to me to be a large
principle upon which we should base our conception of religious
community. Too often, Jewish teaching is left to professionals, but
the Torah itself reminds us that each of us has the obligation to
share what we can, if not in words, then in ritual or compassionate
action. We study not only to solve intellectual puzzles inside our
private minds, but so that we can each be a living testimony to the
power of Judaism to heal the world- and each of us can be a teacher to
others, if we discover our gifts and bring them forth in the context
of spiritual community.

The mitzvah of study is not only about passing something on to
somebody else; it’s about learning how to be more powerful spiritual
personalities. That is why Torah study – in books, in classes, on the
internet, podcasts, you name it – is a foundational commandment:
because it helps us become more ourselves by sharing with others.

Shabbat Shalom,


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