As a child, I always dreaded going to Hebrew School. Although it was only a few blocks from my public school, the lonely bike ride felt like miles as I watched my friends walk away in the opposite direction, arms linked together like a human gum wrapper chain. Being Jewish in the small town where I grew up meant being different. I didn’t have the words or the convictions back then to explain what it took me years to appreciate: that an essential part of being Jewish is the continuing responsibility to learn, study and grow throughout our lifetime. To learn: from our sacred texts and literature such as the Torah, Talmud and hundreds of other works by Jewish rabbis, authors and educators.
To study: alone, in pairs and in groups, with our children, our parents, our partners and our community, so that our decisions and choices in life can be informed by Jewish knowledge, wisdom and practice. To grow: into a “mensch,” a person who is compassionate, caring, respectful and aware of the responsibilities we have to ourselves, each other and the Source of creation. An essential part of being Jewish is the continuing responsibility to learn, study and grow throughout our lifetime.
Over the years, my teachers have come in different sizes, ages, affiliations and sexes. I have learned from rabbis and professors, therapists and yoga teachers. I have learned much from parents and even more from my children – stretching my mind and opening my heart in ways that challenged and delighted me. When it comes to my most profound Jewish learning, however, I have to credit some of the finest people I know, who taught me how to love Judaism without even realizing it. My grandmother stands out as one of the greats, a woman with no more than a fifth-grade education who taught me how to light Shabbat candles and make chicken soup sweetened with parsnips. My friend Esther, whose generosity of spirit and willingness to share her love of Judaism inspired me to be a better Jew and a better person. My colleague Jeffery, who patiently explained Hebrew prayers to me; my sister-in-law, Judy, who helped me keep kosher; and my husband, Ray, who fought to maintain the Sabbath in a home where weekends looked like whirlwinds.
Jewish tradition recognizes that we encounter many teachers in our lifetime and that it is up to us to take what we can from each. Simeon Ben Zoma, a great Talmudic rabbi, answered the question: “Who is wise?” with the following: “He who learns from every person, as it is said: ‘From all my teachers I grew wise.’” Jewish learning is more than a decision to learn about Judaism. It is a pathway to learning about living a more meaningful life.
It has always been hard to set aside the time for Jewish study. That is why the Talmud cautioned us more than 1,500 years ago: “Do not say, When I have leisure time I will study, for you may never have leisure time.”