Tuesday, January 17, 2006

To blossom like a palm & flourish like a cedar

It is no blessing to be brilliant. I can say this unequivocally because I am not so blessed.

I say it because I find that incredible intelligence can often inhibit one's ability to find great joy and substance in experiences or exchanges that those of average or slightly-above average intelligence appreciate.

Case in point:
A 19th century Chassidic text teaches that when a rabbi is teaching Torah (which we will understand to be any Jewish learning), the intention of the rabbi is to raise the student's awareness even at the expense of the rabbi's own growth. The understanding is that if the rabbi is focusing on his/her own growth, the student, who is at a lower level, will be left behind. The prooftext: "The tzaddik (understood here to mean not just righteous but enlightened as well) blossoms like a palm, and shall flourish like a cedar in Lebanon (Ps. 92:13)."

A palm tree is the shorter of the two trees, but unlike the cedar, it bears fruit. So we are taught that if we aim too high, we might grow intellectually but we will not bear fruit. We will not help our student grow. But, if we set aside our own learning, we will in fact merit both blessings; we will grow higher and higher and see Torah grow in our student.

The text continues to warn that although we must be cognizant of our student's limitations, we must not be brought down to his/her level. In other words, we must stand still, rising neither higher nor lower.

I am not brilliant. I know a little more than my students in a great deal of areas. A general practitioner rather than a specialist, if you will. For me, the interaction with my students is almost always elevating for them and for me.

This particular text also quotes one of my all-time favourite (and oft-quoted) Talmudic teachings: "I have learned much from my teachers, and even more from my colleagues, but from my students have I learned the most (B. Taanit 7a)." And for me, it is a very true statement. I highly value the incredible textual knowledge held by my teachers and so many of my colleagues. A lifetime of study will bring me to the outer edge of their erudition. That being said, the truest moments of insight for me come from my students as they make their ways through the varied paths of our Tradition.

I asked a classroom full of 40 people why they thought a blessing over the wine was said during a wedding ceremony. I was looking for someone to make the connection between kiddush and kiddushin. For someone to point out that we use the kiddush as a ritual to mark holy space or holy time. Instead, Plonit conjectured that wine was used to encourage fertility. She reasoned that just as wine comes from fruit so too do we hope that this union will bear fruit. Certainly not the answer for which I was looking. And not an explanation I had heard previously. A modern midrash! And even if it's way-off-base, it's a Jewish way of thinking. And who I am to discourage such thinking.

I don't think that all of my colleagues approach their teaching this way. They see it as drudgery. A chore. A lackluster part of their work. They would rather delve into the text with peers of equal knowledge and skill. And there is something to be said about furthering one's own pursuit of Torah.

But then again, it isn't enough to just flourish like that cedar. Without blossoming like the palm, we'd miss out on one of the greatest gifts of our calling -- bringing people and Torah into an intimate relationship.

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