Saturday, March 25, 2006

Four Learners and teachers

Mishnah 5:15 and Rabbi David Rosenfeld's commentary:
"There are four types of students. One who is quick to understand and quick to forget -- his gain is outweighed by his loss. One who is slow to understand and slow to forget -- his loss is outweighed by his gain. One who is quick to understand and slow to forget -- this is a good portion. One who is slow to understand and quick to forget -- this is a bad portion."...
This is a longer excerpt from the Pirkei Avot teaching than I usually post, but there is such an interesting educational as well as religious message here that I couldn't resist. At the same time, I didn't want to force you to read all the way through to get a clue as to what I was thinking about, so I'm going to do a little commentary here first. There are three things that I find interesting about this commentary. First is the way in which our grading tends to reward those students who are quick to learn, whether they retain it or not, and I'm wondering if there's a way to build in greater rewards for those who are slow but who retain material long-term.

Second, I'm struck by the end of the article: traditionally we value scholars not because of their skills, but because of their devotion to that which is intrinsically honorable. I think the current environment is one in which teachers, particularly university scholars, are supposed to be self-rewarding, and self-honoring, and I think that misses the point a bit.
People who are quick to understand but quick to forget lose more than they gain. Their initial comprehension is outweighed by their forgetfulness -- leaving them little better off than when they started.

Conversely, someone who is slow to understand but retains well gains more in the long run than he loses. In addition, as R. Samson Raphael Hirsch adds, often the very quality of being slow to absorb will aid in a person's retention. He will be satisfied with a subject only after he has fully thought it through and absorbed its significance. .... In contrast, the person who spends little effort in the initial comprehension will have put little investment into the material. As a result, it will be lost as quickly as it was acquired.

Finally, one who is slow to understand and quick to forget has a "bad portion", while one who is quick to understand and slow to forget has a good one. The commentators (Maimonides, Rabbeinu Yonah) point out that as opposed to the other mishnas of this series, this mishna does not characterize such people as pious or wicked. Obviously, we are dealing with natural, G-d given abilities rather than human accomplishment. One who is not as intellectually capable or inclined as his fellow is obviously not an inferior person -- nor is someone born smart automatically righteous. Even so, it will be more difficult for the less scholarly to achieve in many of the important tasks of life, and for this our mishna states that his portion is inferior.
Thus, it is within our ability to be infinitely good or wicked, and to forge a relationship with G-d regardless of intellectual capability, personal background, or any other extraneous factor. This in fact is the true meaning of "all men are created equal" (I've heard R. Noach Weinberg explain it such.) We are certainly not equal when it comes to talents, predilections, or natural abilities. But in this one regard we are all equal: we all possess souls. We have the potential to develop ourselves, whether in goodness or wickedness, and we possess the free will to determine which path we will follow. Goodness and closeness to G-d are not reserved for the intellectual, the scholarly, or the well-pedigreed. It is the inherent right of all mankind and the simple fact of our humanity.
One who cleaves to G-d while working with his hands, raising children, or acting with honesty and integrity in the workplace is fulfilling a unique function within the world and is bringing his own little corner of the universe to its fulfillment. He is sanctifying and devoting to G-d a life which might otherwise be devoid of religious content. If such worldly involvement is the task this person is cut out for -- if this is his or her personal mission to the world -- then he too is fulfilling his purpose and achieving his perfection -- and is following his own special path to G-d.

At the same time, such a person has a more difficult portion. In a way, his job is tougher than that of the scholar. He must infuse sanctity into the otherwise mundane. And this requires a much more conscious and concerted effort. In addition, he is less equipped with knowledge of the Torah to guide him (although, of course, regular daily Torah study sessions are a must wherever one's life mission leads him). His path is longer and more perilous. It involves temptations and pitfalls, whether in patience, workplace ethics, involvement with others less believing, etc. -- which one would not be exposed to within the four cubits of the study hall. But if followed properly and honorably, it is an equally great act of G-dly service and in a way, does even more towards sanctifying the world and bringing it to its fulfillment.

So, why do we accord greater honor to the scholar? Aren't we -- or can't we all become -- equally precious servants of G-d? The answer is that we do so not so much because of an inherent superiority, but because of what such people represent. Showing respect to a scholar is our way of honoring the Torah. The scholar speaks and represents G-d's word in this world. When we honor him we express our allegiance to the Torah and all it stands for.

But that is in this world alone. The World to Come will be a place not only of reward and punishment but of truth as well. In the World to Come all of G-d's true servants will be equally close to Him, and all those whose lives were ones of sanctity and dedication to G-d will come forward and receive their due.
Of course, there's very little that we can do in the classroom for those whose ethical behavior and honest labor will be life-long glories. Except, perhaps, to remember them, to hold them up and honor them from our own honored position.

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