Thursday, June 2, 2011

Knowing Everything

Parshat Naso
29 Iyyar 5771
June 2nd, 2011
45th Day of the Omer

A story was once told to me about the famously brilliant founder of Agudath Israel in America, Rabbi Eliezer Silver. In the early 1900’s, Rabbi Silver came to America and found work as the rabbi of a congregation in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. One night the president of his shul walked by his house one evening and saw him learning Torah.
The president convened a meeting of the board, which promptly fired Rabbi Silver. The reason given was that Rabbi Silver was, apparently, still a student. A real rabbi would know everything.
Part of the inheritance of American intellectual history is, when it comes to learning, an impatience with the space between novicehood and mastery. This is certainly not unique to us, but as the first of the modern democratic nations, we have a heaping dose of it. The time between starting along the path of learning and reaching its apex is considered a waste of time. We would certainly shorten the road could we manage it successfully.
Our impatience with the discomfort of learning has particularly unfortunate side effects for contemporary Jews. A person can come to Shabbat, every Shabbat, for 30 or 40 years and feel no more knowledgeable about our tefillah than when she came in, nor feel that he really knows the content of Torah despite hearing it read every week. Something is amiss.
Patience, my friends, I urge patience. Rabbi Silver had it right – the process of learning is so fine a thing, even if prickly at first, to be worth stretching out over an entire lifetime. Our desire to learn quickly and be done with it has brought us to the place where we never have the time to learn anything. We deserve better than the freneticism of our culture.

“In those old days it was different. For then faith was a task for a whole lifetime, not a skill thought to be acquired in either days or weeks.” Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

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