Teaching as a Masterful Symphony

As we begin the cycle of studying the weekly parsha again, and we jump back into our classrooms following the Sukkot break, I would like to share some penetrating thoughts from Rav Soloveitchik on why Torah is compared to "shira", a song (see Devarim 31:19). I believe these ideas are not only instructive about what Torah study should be, but also teaches the teacher how to teach.

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In an undated lecture, quoted in the new Mesoret Harav Chumash (as an aside, a must have set of sefarim!!) on the aforementioned pasuk, the Rav is quoted as having said the following:

"The process of learning is an intellectual performance, while singing is an emotional performance. The esthetic experience, the artistic experience, is more dynamic than the intellectual experience. The intellectual experience can often be dreary, anemic. The esthetic experience... fascinates, arouses passion, and has the power of awakening hidden desires and aspirations. Music is a most powerful means to arouse man; it shares with the religious experience the tremor and the excitement, the longing and the joy one feels when confronted with something exalted, beautiful and sublime. If the intellectual experience would consistently engage the emotions like music does, all students would excel, and teachers would have no trouble in the classroom...

The esthetic musical experience is a total one; the whole of man is immersed in it. The same should be true of Talmud Torah... We sit at His feet and we listen to Him eagerly. The experience of Talmud Torah is total, all-comprehensive and all-penetrating. It is a mystical experience, it is the melody...

...If the study of Torah had been a total experience, it could never be forgotten. If one learns only with his mind, he is apt to forget. If there is total absorption, the mind stimulated, the heartbeat accelerated, the imagination fired, the emotions awakened, then Talmud Torah turns into a beautiful melody which can never be forgotten......"

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How do we teach Torah in a way that our students walk away from our classrooms feeling like they just experienced a masterful symphony?

The classroom atmosphere needs a heavy dose of joy. Chazal in Shir Hashirim Rabba (1:10) describe the fiery atmosphere of learning that the Amoraim enjoyed with one another as “Vehadvarim smaichin kinsinasam b’sinai”, the study of Torah was joyous as the time it was given at Har Sinai. To show the way a Torah idea comes together, to present the profound truths of Torah in an enjoyable and exciting manner, will make sure our students have the Har Sinai experience. Similarly, the gemara at the end of Berachos (63b) comments on the pasuk that Hashem taught Torah to Moshe “Panim el panim” (Shemos 33:11), face to face, so that, “Just as I have shown you a happy face when I have taught you, so must you show the Jewish people a happy face when you teach them.” People enjoy learning from people who promote a joyous, positive atmosphere while they are learning. Students learn to associate Torah study with great joy, and will want to continue the joyous experience going forward. The study of Torah is supposed to bring a person joy, as the pasuk says, “Pikudei Hashem yesharim mesamchei lev” (Tehillim 19:9), “G-d’s statutes are straight and bring joy to a person’s heart.” Often, the more joy the teacher displays, the more excitement and love the students have for the material, and the more they want to remain connected to such a pleasurable activity.

May it be a year of inspiring our students to not only learn the Torah but to enjoy singing the song of Torah as well!

by Rabbi Yisroel Kaminetsky
Rabbi Kaminetsky is the Rosh Yeshiva at Hebrew Academy of Long Beach and Menahel at Davis Renov Stahler Yeshiva High School for Boys