Learning That is Meaningful is Sacred Learning

“If I Am Not For Myself Who Will Be For Me,” a painting by David Baruch Wolk. Courtesy Fine Art America.

By Sandra Lilienthal

For the past many years, I have been a Jewish educator focused on teaching adults. I have both been in classrooms interacting with students and have conducted research in my area (Broward County, FL), which has allowed me to understand a little better what adult Jewish learners look for when they join learning programs. In general, these learners are sophisticated, intellectually advanced adults who are curious about Judaism, its philosophy and traditions; but most importantly, they are interested in its meaning and relevancy to their personal lives. They are less interested in learning abstract, hypothetical subjects. They want to learn that which can be applied to real life.

A few days ago I had yet another opportunity to see this at work. I was leading a class discussion on a very famous Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 1:14):
Hillel says, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me
But if I am only for myself, who am I?
If not now, when?”

Before bringing to the table how our Sages interpreted this Mishnah, I asked my students how they understood it. Some of the interpretations coincided with the classic reading of the Mishnah. However, one person said – I think this speaks to the Jews collectively, not individually; I think this may be may be talking about Israel. Yes – we all know that this is not the traditional interpretation, and that the Hebrew text is clear in its singular (not plural) form. However, this was a textbook case of how our adult learners get excited when they make connections between what they are learning and what they are living. This particular student is heavily involved in pro-Israel advocacy in our area, and to her, days after the UN resolution 2334, the Mishnah was speaking to our community as a whole.

If I (Israel, Jews) am not for myself, who will be for me? Can Israel (or the Jews) rely on others? She continued – we need to be reminded that ultimately, if we do not take care of ourselves, no one else will.

But if I am only for myself, who am I? If Israel or the Jews would think only of themselves, what would be the purpose of our existence? Even if there are times when Israel feels alone, it still runs to help others; it does not close itself in its own little world. It is not a coincidence that Israel is frequently the first country to arrive at a disaster site to help; that Israel operates eye clinics in countries such as Nepal and Micronesia; that Israel provides irrigation and training in water management and shares agricultural advances with over 100 countries.

And if not now, when? Now is the time to help. As I write, while there is genocide going on in the world, Israel is bringing in wounded Syrians to receive medical treatment, even if this could potentially put our own doctors at risk.

As I heard my student expose her point of view, I was once again reminded of how important it is to be a learner-centered educator. I was also reminded of the Talmudic saying: Much have I learned from my masters; more from my colleagues than from my masters; and from my students, more than all. (Talmud, Ta’anit 7a)

Intellectual pursuit (knowledge) is important to our adult learners to the extent that it leads to meaning. It is the integration of the two (knowledge and meaning) that will lead the adult learner to achieve a sense of wholeness. Yes, I need to teach the students what the Rabbis of the Mishnah said and what they meant by that. But we must also allow our students to find personal meaning in the text. I believe that the holiness of our texts is even more noticed by our learners when we encourage them to find their own meaning in the text. After all, as Franz Rosenzweig said: “The path of Torah begins not with the text, but with life.”

Sandra Lilienthal is an adult educator in South Florida. She is a 2015 recipient of the Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.