Yitro 5783 – Yehi Shalom
What type of learner are you? Human beings learn and retain information in a lot of different ways. The main three ways we categorize these styles are auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learning. I am a visual learner. As a musician sometimes this surprises people, but I need to see things, read through them, and take down notes in order to really let them sink in. And only after I retain the information am I able to truly process or act on it. In Pirkei Avot (Teachings of our Ancestors) there are two really poignant back to back passages in chapter five about different types of learners:
אַרְבַּע מִדּוֹת בְּהוֹלְכֵי לְבֵית הַמִּדְרָשׁ. הוֹלֵךְ וְאֵינוֹ עוֹשֶׂה, שְׂכַר הֲלִיכָה בְיָדוֹ. עוֹשֶׂה וְאֵינוֹ הוֹלֵךְ, שְׂכַר מַעֲשֶׂה בְיָדוֹ. הוֹלֵךְ וְעוֹשֶׂה, חָסִיד. לֹא הוֹלֵךְ וְלֹא עוֹשֶׂה, רָשָׁע
There are four types among those who frequent the study hall: One who attends but does not practice: they receive a reward for attendance. One who practices but does not attend: they receive a reward for practice. One who attends and practices: they are a pious person; One who neither attends nor practices: they are a wicked person. (Pirkei Avot 5:14)
In this passage, it is clear that the rabbis show preference to one who not only attends the lessons in the study hall but also acts on those lessons in their life. It is not enough to just learn but leave the lessons in theory, or to act without understanding why you are acting in this way. We need the action and the understanding behind it.
אַרְבַּע מִדּוֹת בְּיוֹשְׁבִים לִפְנֵי חֲכָמִים. סְפוֹג, וּמַשְׁפֵּךְ, מְשַׁמֶּרֶת, וְנָפָה. סְפוֹג, שֶׁהוּא סוֹפֵג אֶת הַכֹּל. מַשְׁפֵּךְ, שֶׁמַּכְנִיס בְּזוֹ וּמוֹצִיא בְזוֹ. מְשַׁמֶּרֶת, שֶׁמּוֹצִיאָה אֶת הַיַּיִן וְקוֹלֶטֶת אֶת הַשְּׁמָרִים. וְנָפָה, שֶׁמּוֹצִיאָה אֶת הַקֶּמַח וְקוֹלֶטֶת אֶת הַסֹּלֶת
There are four types among those who sit before the sages: a sponge, a funnel, a strainer, and a sieve. A sponge soaks up everything; A funnel takes in at one end and lets out at the other; A strainer lets out the wine and retains the sediment ; A sieve lets out the coarse meal and retains the choice flour. (Pirkei Avot 5:15)
In this passage, the students are all likened to household objects. The sponge takes in everything their teacher says whether or not it is actually something important to retain. The funnel is great at receiving information but struggles to retain any of it. The strainer takes everything in, but seems to have trouble processing and ascertaining which information is important and only remembers the trivial. The sieve learns and receives with all the other students and is able to determine and remember the essential teachings within the lessons.
At times I am sure we have been each of these students. And also sometimes we become one or the other because of the methods and teaching styles being utilized. The personality, character, and style of the teacher impact our ability to be our best learning selves.
In this week’s parsha, Yitro, the people of Israel gather at Mount Sinai to learn and receive the Ten Commandments. They are so ready to receive that they even respond to God that they will do all that they hear before they even receive the Law! As we read in the Torah:
וְכל־הָעָם רֹאִים אֶת־הַקּוֹלֹת וְאֶת־הַלַּפִּידִם וְאֵת קוֹל הַשֹּׁפָר וְאֶת־הָהָר עָשֵׁן וַיַּרְא הָעָם וַיָּנֻעוּ וַיַּעַמְדוּ מֵרָחֹק׃
All the people saw the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking. When the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance. (Ex. 20:15)
This was a miraculous moment – they saw thunder and heard lightning! But Rav Samuel Jacob Rubinstein (Early 20th century French Rabbi) explains that really what it means is that what they heard at Mt. Sinai they saw afterwards in their homes, in their behavior, and the way they lived their lives. What they heard they saw also with the sense of visibility: in the spirit of Shabbat, Kashrut, and Purity.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “The moment at Sinai depends for its fulfillment upon this present moment, upon all moments…Revelation is the beginning, our deeds must continue, our lives must fulfill it.” In that moment, the people of Israel channeled the pious learner and the sieve from Pirkei Avot: They experienced an incredible teaching, they distilled the most important parts of that moment, and they lived the lesson in their lives.
In Yehi Shalom, we pray for the ability to learn well and find a community and a home with shared values. What can we do to walk our values and live Torah in our own lives? What kind of community and home would that be? May we find it soon.