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When Will You Learn?

02/22/2019 10:19:09 AM


A few days ago I was teaching a weekly class, and somehow we got off topic and began discussing organ donation. A few students were surprised by my remarks. "What? Judaism allows organ donation? I always thought it wasn't allowed."

From experience, teaching Judaism's favorable view on organ donation often comes as a surprise to many. But this time their reaction was even more eye-opening.

I said to them, "Two months ago our class topic was organ donation. We explored in depth ancient and contemporary Jewish texts, and we discovered many permissible - and even encouraging - rulings. At that time many of you were surprised to learn of this, but that's exactly what you did - you learned about it. And now, two months later, you're reacting with the same astonishment."

I then explained that this wasn’t a harsh critique against them per-se. This is something we all experience. It’s an example of our difficulty at learning new things.

During our formative years, we are taught and exposed to all kinds of ideas. These ideas become rooted in our minds, and they define our reality. It doesn’t matter whether these ideas are true or bubbe-maasos or somewhere in between – for us they are fact.

Moving into our adulthood life, we have a hard time accepting new knowledge which challenges our preconceived ideas. We may read, listen and study, but it doesn’t stick. In one ear and out the other. We have a kind of inner-resistance to information which contests the way we always thought about things.

To learn means to grow. To grow requires courage, openness and vulnerability. We need to be willing to suspend what we have always known, turn our minds into a blank canvas, and to sincerely explore something new.

Many people become set in their ways. As do companies, communities and organizations. They become locked up in an old shell and remain stagnant. When innovative ideas are presented, they bounce off the shell just like water off a turtle’s back.

Oftentimes, after an enlightening conversation with a congregant, they will say to me, “Rabbi, you should talk about this from the pulpit – many people don’t know about it and it’s important for them to know.” And I reply, “Good point. And for the record, I’ve already spoken about it fifteen times!”

We should learn from the lobster. A lobster is a soft spineless animal, called an invertebrate, and lives inside a hard protective shell, called an exoskeleton. As the lobster grows, its shell becomes very confining. Instead of stopping to grow and allowing its shell to control its size, the lobster will cast off the shell and produce a new larger one. Just imagine the fear and danger during this process as it becomes susceptible to predatory fish, yet the lobster knows that without it there won’t be any growth.

Rabbah bar Nachmani, a great Babylonian Talmudist (3rd century CE), was known as an exceptional teacher. When delivering his classes, his special formula was to always open with a joke or a funny anecdote. He knew that the only way the students will truly be receptive to his teachings was if they were not only physically present but also mentally and emotionally engaged. He wanted to gain their trust, bolster their curiosity and harness their attention.

This is a challenge for us all. To have the interest, desire, honesty, courage and know-how to open our minds and hearts in search for something we don’t yet know; in continuous search for truth. Each time we pray, we should discover new meaning in the liturgy; when we study the same Torah portion each year, we should find new layers of interpretation and relevance; every time we celebrate the same Shabbat or festival we should experience something different.

Let’s be willing to let go and travel higher and further. As they say, you don’t know what you don’t know. But are you ready to try to get to know?

Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784