Friday, 17 April 2009

Parshat Shemini: Teaching Torah Correctly. A Picture is Worth 1000 Words...


If the saying that says that a picture is worth a thousand words has any real meaning, can one imagine the value of the original item contained in the picture itself?!

We live in a world of sight (amongst our other senses.) When it comes to pedagogic teaching methods, if we're going to really succeed in teaching someone else about something, there is simply no better way of doing it than by actually showing them what it's all about.

It brings to mind the strangeness experienced by so many at school level – and higher education, where the professor walks into the room, rambles off the biggest words they can think of, then gives the students a thick textbook to read, and not only expects them to have understood all the terms, but to actually practise what they were supposed to have learned.

The Torah is not a text book – though many "greats" apparently think it is. The Torah is a code of rules of living life. It's filled with such practises as wearing Tefillin and Tzizit, setting up Mezuzot on doorposts and a variety of other special commandments such as how to immerse vessels in a Mikvah for "koshering" purposes, or for that matter – how to even build the Mikvah to begin with! What of the laws of killing an animal before being permitted to eat it?! In fact, the majority of Torah law is based upon real physical things – that require sight in order to know what it's all about.

Let's take the keen Talmudic student. He is ready to become a rabbi. He works through some serious material, learning about the laws of meat and milk for example – and then some laws dealing with how to kosher meat by salting it. He may also learn the laws for Shechting (slaughtering) an animal too – and a variety of other important laws related to ritual law. After all, if he is going to be a rabbi of a community – he might need to know how to rule in these matters to help the community fulfil Jewish law correctly! Eating is going to be a big concern of the community – so he'll really have to know everything from how to slaughter an animal – to salting the meat – to a variety of problems that may arise through people accidentally finding themselves in the situation where some milk splattered on top of the meat (or was accidentally cooked with it – a prohibition of the Torah.)

Does the student actually know anything about the problems of milk and meat mixing? What of salting the meat? And what of slaughtering the animal?! He may well be able to recite completely off by heart the Talmud folio he is currently on… the commentaries written about it and have a clear grasp of the language used to describe how to kill an animal. Does he however actually know anything about the practical? Does he even know what the different parts of the animal are? Has he *seen* the animal even?! Or has he simply recited by rote – everything dealing with the animal?

In fact, while the student may be considered a learned scholar, it would be the rare individual to think of such a student as a real expert in Jewish law – without knowing if the student has actually practised anything he has learned.

Sadly in our day and age, there is simply a lack of qualified people ready and available to teach these things on a practical level. Most teaching is done via a Talmud page with the student attaining his certification and qualification from simply regurgitating the material off by heart. In the eyes of the teacher – he is truly a Talmid Chacham – a wise and learned student. One may even wonder if he is really honest enough with himself to realise that with all his knowledge – he may know very little!

Life is about doing, about seeing and knowing how things work. Not simply by reading a text book and being qualified to deal with life from whatever is learned from it.

The famous story is told concerning the great Rabbi Akiva who began learning Torah at the age of 40 to become the greatest of Torah giants. All Torah that we have today – both revealed and hidden – have as their roots – the teachings taught by this very special giant of a man. Yet at 40, he knew almost nothing of what Torah was all about. So much so, that this story is even more worthy of being recorded.

Rabbi Akiva found himself in a deserted area one day. As he was travelling, he noticed a body lying on the ground. Upon closer inspection, he realised there was no life in it. A dead body… in need of burial. Rabbi Akiva was no fool when it came to the laws of burial. He also valued the honour of the body. After all, what kind of honour would it be to bury a body in the middle of nowhere? It was bad enough that the body had ended up here all by itself. The best would be to take it immediately to an honourable graveyard and bury it with the honour due it.

And so, Rabbi Akiva took the body himself to the nearest graveyard and began to bury the body, giving it the honour due it. On doing so, he was berated by his teachers. "Do you not know about the Meit Mitzvah?" they asked him. A Meit Mitzvah is a body that has died somewhere with nobody there to take care of it and where nobody knows anything about it. The law is that it must be buried at the very point that it is found. Of course, Rabbi Akiva – being especially feeling towards others, a man of kindness, realised though that this simply was not honourable and so did the very next best thing by taking it to a proper graveyard for burial.

The truth is that on the surface, Rabbi Akiva did nothing less than the best for this body. Yet, something was missing. As Rabbi Akiva himself testified after this incident. The element of Shimush (serving Torah scholars) was missing! While he had learnt about the importance of giving honour to a dead body (which he did with excellence!) he did not actually see how others before him had treated such a situation. Had he seen it, he would have realised that the Mitzvah that he had, had nothing to do with honouring the body by burying it in the graveyard, but in fact by honouring it more by burying it exactly where it was!

If a picture is worth 1000 words, then the actual implementation of seeing something being done in person must be far beyond this. Such is the way that Torah must be taught always.

Learning the laws of the prohibitive mixing of milk and meat is fine. But if the Rabbi will never actually demonstrate to the student what can be (at least with very good diagrams!) or second best to allow the student to ask – and ask and ask, and if the rabbi will not have patience to deal with the student's constant queries and difficulties, then the teaching he will be doing to his student will be more of an intellectual exercise, which may simply be a waste of time.

If the student learns about the laws of cleaning vegetables for kosher purposes but never actually cleans them himself, he will be about as smart as he was before he had learnt the material! And while regurgitating the laws of slaughtering an animal – or building a kosher Mikvah may make the student smart… they will go nowhere if the teacher is not ready and prepared to actually show the student what it's all about.

He may ask a variety of questions to the student, challenging him with rhetoric and logic, but without the student actually seeing the law in action – the student will remain forever lost, never having understood one word of Torah.

But don't be surprised. These ideas were not my own.

In Parshat Shemini, Moses is commanded by G-d to teach the Jewish people the laws of which animals are fitting for kosher consumption and which are not.

Moses – the humblest and greatest of all men – does not simply inform the Jewish people by naming the animals… he takes things one step further. How many animals could there be in the world? How many birds in the sky, fish in the sea, and creepy crawly creatures upon the Earth?! Wouldn't it just be good enough for Moses to list them all?!

In Parshat Shemini – Leviticus 11:1 and onwards, G-d commands Moses to speak to the Children of Israel and tell them that *this* is the Chaya (animal) that you may eat. Rashi (the famous commentator on Torah) points out: This is in the language of "life" (i.e. the word Chaya is related to the word Chayim meaning life) – for if not for this, the text could have said "Behema" – which also means animal (Mizrachi.) Since the Jewish people cleave to G-d and are fitting to be living, therefore separate them from the impurity and decree upon them commandments…)

Rashi then continues to point out: This teaches us (i.e. from the fact that the verse says clearly that "this" is the animal that you may eat, it implies an action of pointing to something) – that Moses held the animal and showed it to the Jewish people (saying) this you may eat, and this you may not eat. Even all the swarming fish in the sea, he held up every single specimen and he showed them. And so too with the birds… and so too with the creepy crawly creatures.

Rashi points out clearly that the directive to Moses was not simply to *tell* the Jewish people what they may or may not eat. It was not good enough to simply let them know the names of the animals. The reason is obvious. It may well be that Moses knew the names of every animal, what they looked like and why they were Kosher or not, but not every single person was able to simply know via intuition which animal Moses was talking about. Better for Moses to actually point to the animals individually and show them exactly what was kosher and what was not, and in this way teach the Jewish people exactly what was permitted and what was not.

Moses teaches us all an important lesson – especially when it comes to teaching Torah (if not everything else in life as well.) It is not enough to debate for hours on end over texts wondering if one has grasped the material well enough to pass a written exam. Rather the teachers must teach the student well enough – and clearly enough, so that the student does not only know the material in his head (like a walking encyclopaedia), but rather that he actually grasps the physical aspect of the concept as well, so that when it comes to implementing a law (or the like) the student will actually know what to do.

Learning how to slaughter an animal through one thousand pages of text may be beneficial. But it does not compare to the reality of actually seeing a qualified slaughterer perform the slaughter. Learning how to salt meat to make it kosher through another thousand pages of text and a confusing exam, may well test the students intellectual abilities, but it compares as nothing when placed with the real situation of finding meat waiting to be salted and not actually knowing how to handle it and just how much physical salt to actually use (how to wash the meat, how to soak it and how to clean it afterwards etc.) Learning how to build a kosher Mikva via thousands of pages of text may do well for implanting in the student the ability to know the basic ideas of the structure of a kosher Mikvah – but does it compare at all to the teacher physically showing the student what a Mikvah looks like, the pipes used and how the water is actually brought into the Mikvah?!

Because Torah is life (see Rashi above), and the Jewish people represent life itself and must cleave to life – it is fitting that every Torah teacher internalise these concepts, so that when the time comes to share what Torah is all about – to a student who finds theoretical concepts difficult to grasp – the teacher will actually be able to show the student what it is all about. Not just in words. Not even in pictures – but for real, in this physical world that we live in.

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