Nov 24, 2011

Making a Collage of Learning

Sometimes when we study together our texts from Samuel, I forget what it's like to be a student coming into a class.  One of the things I have learned, but have not conveyed to everyone, is how "aha" moments come when we make a collage of our learning.    When I studied Hasidism with Natan Margalit, I learned that the Hasids would bring together passages and comments from various sources and interpret them harmoniously, engaging “in a calculated creative misreading or reinterpretation of the entire received and accepted body of previous Jewish traditions." (Art Green in Teachings of the Hasidic Masters in Back to the Sources: Readings in Classic Jewish Texts, pg. 371.) 

Well, I'm not talking now about pulling together the entire body of Jewish learning, but I do want to talk about keeping your ears open for unexpected connections.  The Talmud tells us to make our "ear like the hopper and get...a perceptive heart to understand."  (bT Hagigah 3b) 

Look (listen) for unexpected connections between different learning opportunities and collage them together in your perceptive heart.   Here is an example, and what made me think of writing this blog post.   I recently attended a weekend retreat sponsored by Nehirim.  You might do the same, attend a retreat, go to a Shabbaton, or take classes - the point is to make connections between classes or workshops on seemingly unrelated topics.   My friend Zvi Bellin gave a workshop on "Embracing Freedom and Responsibility" in which he introduced a text from Viktor Frankl.  

“The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day. On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back."  (Quoted by   -- Viktor E. Frankl, "Logotherapy in a Nutshell", Man's Search for Meaning.)

Wow! I thought.  Such a clear description - some days I do see the calendar getting thinner, but I don't live there.  However, I know someone whose outlook on life is always glass half empty, who faces life with the sure knowledge that all past sufferings weigh upon this moment, and are a guarantor of nothing but future suffering.  No exit, no way out.

Then I went over to another workshop, a discussion of parashat Vayerah (Gen 18:1-22.24), led by Irwin Keller.  We focused on the Akeda, the story of Abraham and the almost-sacrifice of Isaac his son.  Amidst discussing the thorny issues of whether Abraham passed or failed his test, where Sarah was, and whether Isaac was traumatized for the rest of his (nearly invisible) life,  we pondered what it meant, that at the critical moment, when the knife was raised, Abraham looked up and found the ram to sacrifice in place of his son. 

10And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son. 11Then an angel of YHVH called to him from heaven: “Abraham! Abraham!” And he answered, “Here I am.” 12And he said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.” 13When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.  (Gen 22:10-13)  

What if Abraham had been a pessimist?   He might have said to the angel:  "I looked up before and nothing happened.   You destroyed Sodom despite my best efforts." (Gen 18:16-19:29)  Or he might have said: "You forced me to send my first born, Ishmael, out into the wilderness.  I loved that boy." (Gen 21:9-23)   Indeed,  Abraham might have said, "Why should I listen to you now when you just put this knife in my hand?"  The point is, Abraham was not a pessimist; he had faith that there was going to be a better path to follow.

So connecting the two texts, Frankl with Vayerah, the teaching of Zvi with the teaching of Irwin, I learned that a pessimist, a dyed in the wool pessimist if you will, never looks up!  The pessimist, whether spoken to by an angel of YHVH or by a friend, is incapable of looking up.  The pessimist never finds the ram in the thicket, but is constrained to continually (metaphorically we hope) slay the person or thing she loves.  And why is this so enlightening?  Because there is a pessimist who is near and dear to me, whom I have been unable to help, who will not look up when I try to show her the ram, and who sometimes points the knife in my direction.   By having an ear like a hopper (taking in everything), and a perceptive heart (to learn), I was suddenly freed from a huge weight of misery.  She can't help who she is.   I can listen, I can be sympathetic, but I no longer have to feel burdened with the impossible job of changing her outlook on life.

Thank you Zvi and Irwin for bringing me this teaching.

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