Lifelong Learning

In second grade, I decided that when I grew up I would be a teacher of Torah. Mr. Rubin’s class was lively. We used real Chumashim; the pages were marbleized on the side and smelled delicious. And one day, I gave the answer. My heart swelled. I went sailing home—what a thrill! On the one hand, this was not a radical decision. My whole family was teachers or rabbis. Yet it still felt dramatic and purposeful, and I knew that it would keep me connected to this, this wonderful world of real learning.

By the time I was sitting in my first pedagogy class during my gap year in Israel, I had already formed distinct notions about teaching. It must be engaging. It must invite active student participation. It must focus of animated exchanges. After all, as a student myself, I had much to say. I wanted this endeavor not just for the teaching, but to a large degree, for the learning that I anticipated would be inherent in a life of education. I was banking on teaching to afford me the ongoing delight of continued study. 

That first year of teaching high school was rough. As a newbie to the profession, the school and the city, I was assigned the least desirable courses, the most challenging classes and the most abominable time slots (senior boys, Jewish history, last period of the day—I was barely five years older than them!). That said, the delight of the year? Plunking myself down at my dining room table each Sunday and preparing my lessons. A luxurious day of learning. 

The single greatest fixed and indisputable perk to working in a Jewish day school is the opportunity to lead a life of learning. It is what drew me in and what keeps me in. The phenomenon of ongoing study is the “predominant prevailing tendency of my spirit, my natural mental and emotional outlook and state of mind, my inclination,” and I suspect that the same is true most others in this chosen noble field.

Many questions need to be addressed and distilled regarding this disposition of lifelong learning. Where does this learning come from? How is it to fit into the endless days of meetings, phone calls and managing? What are the tangible effects of this learning? Is there a distinction to be made between practical learning (how to run an effective meeting, how to lead a powerful conversation, how to ask for an annual gift) and the more ephemeral, soul-satisfying thrill of study for its own sake or even the kind of learning one does to prep for teaching a class, delivering a dvar Torah at a board meeting or leading a staff learning session? And perhaps most importantly, how might our community become more intentional and deliberate about filling this thirsty need for our educational leaders? 

By default, most of my learning occurs out of the need to prepare. At my previous position at our community federation and Jewish Education Council, my supervisor, a beloved mentor to this day, once dramatically jotted down a big fat red NO on Post-it note and stuck it over my desk. She told me if one more person called to ask me to teach anything, I should just say NO. It was an order that came from a place of love; we both knew that I would never fulfill her request. I always say yes. I deeply believe that it is our obligation to share our learning. And coincidentally, by good luck, boy does it feed this insatiable addiction to learning!

I love that metaphors of learning share a common language with hunger and food. It is remarkable and even a bit whimsical that three Hebrew words related to learning have roots connected to the mouth. Shinayim, teeth, shares a root with veshinatam, “And you shall diligently teach” (in the Shema). Chanichayim, gums, share a root with chinuch, education. And a third, sefatayim, lips, is the word for language, safah. There must be a deep philosophical underpinning driving these connections, linking the mouth and learning. 

Perhaps it is related to the nuance found in the morning prayer we say as part of Birkhot HaTorah, which frames our hopes and intentions for learning to be sweet in our mouth and the mouths of all of Israel:

And please, Lord, our God, sweeten the words of Your Torah in our mouths and in the mouths of all of Your people, the House of Israel. And may we and our offspring [and the offspring of our offspring] and the offspring of Your people, the House of Israel—all of us—be knowing of Your Name and studying Your Torah for its sake. Blessed are You, Lord, Who teaches Torah to His people, Israel.

Additional mouth and taste symbolism is reflected in this familiar practice described in the Book of Our Heritage, outlining the initiation into learning for our most tender-aged youngsters. I paraphrase:

It is a custom to begin teaching the Torah to children on Shavuot. At dawn, the children are taken to the synagogue. A tablet is brought on which the letters of the alphabet are written as well as individual verses: “Moshe commanded us the Torah,” “My faith shall be in Torah,” the first verse of Vayikra. The teacher reads every letter, and the child repeats after him. The teacher puts a little of honey on the tablet, and the child licks the honey from the letters. Verses from the Torah are written on a special honey cake made of much milk and honey, and a Torah verse is written on a boiled egg. The teacher reads with the child everything on the tablet, on the cake and on the egg. After the children have finished their lesson, they are given the cake and the egg to eat.

The connection between education and the mouth is further evident in the passage describing the process of Moshe, our greatest of teachers, being instructed by God through the mouth rather than the intellect or the ear, the limb of listening (Bemidbar 12:8):

With him do I speak mouth to mouth, even manifestly, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude of the LORD doth he behold; wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against My servant, against Moses?

Finally, our appetite for knowledge is prophetically cast by the prophet Amos as famine-like (8:11): 

Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD.

We ruminate over ideas, chew over the facts, digest the thought. Why these shared metaphors? Some say because just as we possess an ongoing, insatiable hunger for food, so is our hunger for knowledge voracious.

As a head of school, I see this as a true gift to us in our roles. All agree ours is a position of multiple stresses, complex demands and nimble juggling. I posit here that this disposition of being a lifelong learner is at once a dividend of the job and the very buoy that lifts us up when the day-to-day moves into tenser turfs. For this opportunity to transcend the everyday, to be catapulted back to the thrill of Mr. Rubin’s class—for this, I am humbly grateful. 

The opportunity to teach the sixth grade Chumash class is a welcome diversion in a day packed with pitfalls demanding to be navigated. Prepare the Dvar Torah for the Board meeting—with joy! The weekly volunteer adult classes in Parshah, Talmud and Navi—bring it on! Learn with our child before their Bar / Bat Mitzvah—of course! Teach at Limmud—yes! To those who might say, Where do you find the time? I reply with the classic story of Rabbi Akiva from the Talmud Berachot 61b in his parable of the fox and the fish:

“For that is thy life and the length of thy days, if we go and neglect it how much worse off we shall be!” 

As heads of school, we give so much for this learning of Torah. If not for our disposition of lifelong learning, where would we be? 

Rivy Poupko Kletenik
Leadership Dispositions
Knowledge Topics
Professional Leadership