Time and time again

Why do we need to review? Revising material already studied is such a laborious task. It lacks the verve of uncharted waters and once we have encountered an idea we are often loath to hear it again.

October 11, 2006 07:31


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Why do we need to review? Revising material already studied is such a laborious task. It lacks the verve of uncharted waters and once we have encountered an idea we are often loath to hear it again. Review is one of the more tiresome tasks that teachers set for their pupils. "We have done this already" is a whine often heard from the mouths of students. Adults, too, have a knee-jerk rejection of a lesson already explored. Undeniably, the thrill of encountering new ideas makes learning a stimulating and thought-provoking venture. What then is the importance of review? The Talmud reports a conversation between Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yonatan as they walked through a cemetery (B. Berachot 18a-b). Rabbi Yonatan's tzitziot were hanging out. Rabbi Hiyya, who understood that the dead in their graves were cognizant of their surroundings, berated his colleague: "Lift up your garment, lest the deceased say - 'Tomorrow they will be joining us and now they mock us!'" Proudly displaying tzitziot effectively taunts the dead who no longer have the ability to wear the fringed four cornered garment, or for that matter fulfill any of the Divine commandments. Rabbi Yonatan, however, was of the opinion that the deceased are unaware of their surroundings and therefore would not feel such an affront: "Do the departed know so much?! Doesn't scripture say - 'For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing at all' (Ecclesiastes 9:5)!" Rabbi Hiyya animatedly responded: "If you read this verse once, you must not have reviewed it a second time. And if you did review it a second time, you must not have reviewed it a third time. And if you did review it a third time, you must not have had it explained to you properly! "For in truth, the biblical verse should be understood differently: 'For the living' - referring to the righteous who even after they have departed are called living - 'know that they will die' - and hence consciously and purposefully direct their actions. The verse continues: 'but the deceased'- referring to the wicked who even in their lifetime are called dead - 'know nothing at all' for they do not consider the final reckoning of their misconduct and continue to sin." Rabbi Hiyya's spirited response points to an educational program that requires encountering a text more than once in order to truly fathom its meaning. Had Rabbi Yonatan meticulously revisited the material, he most certainly would have understood the biblical passage differently. As if to buttress this point, Rabbi Yonatan retracts his position after hearing Rabbi Hiyya's interpretation. Thus review is paramount to understanding. Another talmudic passage describing the post-Sinai learning program seems to offer a different reason for multiple encounters with the same text (B. Eruvin 54b). Having received the Torah from the Almighty, Moses set about transmitting the tradition to the nation. First, Moses gave three lessons to the leaders - one to Aaron, one to Aaron's sons Elazar and Itamar and a third class to the 70 Elders. After those three classes, all those who sought the Divine word were welcome to come to the fourth lesson. Aaron, having been present for all four lessons, then assumed the role of teacher. Similarly, Elazar and Itamar and the Elders shouldered the responsibility for spreading the tradition once they had encountered the tradition four times. Thus mastery of the material that confers the right to serve as a teacher of the tradition is conditioned on encountering the tradition more than a single time. The passage does not relate to Moses's education. One commentator, however, understood that Moses too studied the tradition numerous times from the Divine Pedagogue before teaching Aaron (Maharsha, 16th-17th centuries, Poland). Another source goes further - citing the verses: Then He saw it and He declared it; He established it and also searched it out. And to humans He said... (Job 28:27-28), the sages note four verbs before the communication to humans, concluding that the Almighty privately pored over the Torah four times before conveying it to the Children of Israel (Shemot Rabba 40:1). Indeed, in connection with this biblical verse we are told that Rabbi Akiva was once invited to read the Torah, yet he balked, saying that he had not properly reviewed the passage, and was duly praised by his peers. Thus mastery of the tradition is dependent on a manifold encounter with the text. Elsewhere in rabbinic tradition we are told that even the 101st reading does not compare to the 100th, for though one who studies 100 times is truly a righteous person, that extra encounter that goes beyond the norm reflects greater devotion to the Almighty (B. Hagiga 9b). According to one commentator, the first three encounters with a text are necessary for understanding a passage. The fourth reading reflects a desire to study the material for no purpose other than for the sake of the Almighty (Maharsha). Following this line we can understand that review of Torah material may have a spiritual purpose that goes past mere understanding and beyond mastery: Revisiting the tradition reflects a relationship of love. Just as we return time and again to people and places that are dear to us, so we should return to the beloved texts of our tradition. Perhaps a further aspect of review is expressed in the maxim of the Sages encouraging us to revisit the Torah, reconsidering it over and over again, each time analyzing the text from a different perspective (M. Avot 5:22). We examine it and examine it again because in each angle the light is refracted in a nuanced manner, the colors are mixed in a unique blend. Reviewing a text assists understanding and may even lead to mastery. Studying it more than the prescribed number of times also reflects pure motives of love. Moreover, each new encounter with the tradition sheds fresh light, illuminating aspects enfolded within the text. The timeless texts of our tradition can be explored time and again, with each new encounter revealing new understandings and innovative paths. The writer is on the faculty of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.

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