Each Friday leading up to Shavuot, RavBlog will be posting a series of excerpts from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary by Rabbi Dr. Schmuly Yanklowitz. Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is available for pre-order now from CCAR Press.
What is the purpose of learning? Is the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next a deep philosophical exercise? Is it a bureaucratic activity meant to reinforce a top-down understanding of history? Learning is many things at once: personal improvement, developing discipline, and learning to discern reality from fiction. There are many opinions about what constitutes the model student, but learning requires analytical skill and training the memory. Learning requires that students and teachers see life anew, with openness, but that we also return to restudy what’s familiar to strengthen our values.
There are four types of learners: (a) One who grasps quickly and forgets quickly, their gain is offset by their loss; (b) one who grasps slowly and forgets slowly, their loss is offset by their gain; (c) one who grasps quickly and forgets slowly, is wise; (d) one who grasps slowly and forgets quickly, this is a bad portion.
Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes in The Social Contract, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” He says that l’homme sauvage—natural humanity, the species in its freest and least inhibited state—was replaced by l’homme civilise—enlightened and civilized humanity, which is concerned with ethics and morality. Over time, as humanity became more self-aware and controlled, we also became alienated from our natural selves and became stuck in a web of complex social conventions and conformist behavioral patterns. This has harmed human-human and human-Divine relationships. In addition, societal demands and distractions have become so great that it has become more difficult to do the work that we are here in the world to do—to actualize our unique gifts to bring light into the world wherever possible. We need to question the best allocation of our time. Should we spend an hour on social media or volunteer at a food bank? Do we take in a movie with friends or advocate for the rights of the vulnerable? While our obligations don’t have to be zero sum in nature, we should always be aware that we aren’t meant to be idle, especially in times of societal tumult. We have to act and be active. That is our obligation during troubled times.
But if our society is guided by comfortable, conflict-averse decision- making, how can we engage in the hard work to improve society? How can we even discover our own personal cause? We can view this process on both the physical and spiritual planes. Physically, we have unique talents and passions. Spiritually, we have unique callings toward our actualization.
Modernity led to the caging of the soul and some part of human potential. We cannot go back in time, but we must still find avenues to deepen insight, discovery, and freedom. To assist us properly on our path, we must seek the greatest wisdom in the world, which means that we should find teachers who understand and guide us. By finding the right balance of righteousness and wisdom, we grow intellectually into ourselves and develop love of learning and humanity, equally.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, a pluralistic Jewish learning and leadership center; the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice movement; the founder and CEO of the Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, a Jewish vegan, animal welfare movement; and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top fifty rabbis in America, and the Forward named him one of the fifty most influential Jews. He studied at the University of Texas as an undergraduate and at Harvard University for a master’s in leadership and psychology, completed a second master’s degree in Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University, and completed his doctorate at Columbia University in moral development and epistemology. He was ordained as a rabbi by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (the YCT Rabbinical School) in New York, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, and he received two additional private rabbinic ordinations. As a global social justice educator, he has volunteered, taught, and staffed missions in about a dozen countries around the world. A film crew followed him for over a year to produce a PBS documentary (The Calling) about the training of religious leadership, which was released in the winter of 2010. He was born in Canada, was raised in New Jersey and Chicago, and now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with his wife, Shoshana, and three children.