Never Stop Learning a Very Jewish Attitude By Rabbi Ari Ballaban
It is finally May, and our last day of Makor is right around the corner!
Our last day of Makor will be on May 13th; on that day our kids will do some important wrapping up of their final class projects and will get to enjoy some not-to-miss activities (including an “Israeli café” for the whole school being run by our 6th-8th grade class).
Much as I love Makor and am a little sad to see it end each year—and I really, really do and am—even I must confess that I love the freedom and rest that a summer break provides. Though I’ll be sad to say goodbye to Makor for a few months, I will greatly appreciate getting a little more sleep each Sunday morning!
My own personal feelings about this imminent break notwithstanding, it is worth us recognizing how un-Jewish the idea of a summer break is: as Jews, we specifically celebrate that our tradition so highly prizes the continuity of the learning process. On Simchat Torah, for instance, we very deliberately begin reading from Genesis as soon as we have finished the end of Deuteronomy in order to emphasize that our study should never cease. There is even one brilliant (and I think farcically hysterical) story told in the Babylonian Talmud* which seems to emphasize how much despair comes from being shut out of the educational process. In this tale, we read that Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Nathan—two of the most important Rabbis of the early Jewish tradition—were expelled from the rabbinic academy for bad conduct. Barred entry from the beit midrash (house of study), what did these two rabbis do? They sat outside the building and wrote their questions on slips of paper that they would throw in through the window!
Rabbis Meir and Nathan aren’t the only Rabbis of our tradition who fought for the right to go to school. The Talmud** also tells us that one of our greatest sages, Hillel—of Passover sandwich fame—had a similar problem. In his time, Rabbis could only go to the study house if they paid a fee (half a silver dinar), and one day he didn’t have enough money to get in. What did Hillel do? He climbed onto the roof of the beit midrash and listened to the Rabbis learn and debate through the building’s skylight. The story goes on to say that Hillel eventually fell asleep on that roof, and that that night it snowed and he nearly froze to death. He was only saved because the next day the Rabbis inside the beit midrash noticed that the skylight was blocked and found and resuscitated him. The Talmud teaches elsewhere that, as a result of his experience, Hillel eventually went on to abolish this entrance fee so that all who wanted could come and learn.
Now, unfortunately, we aren’t in a place where we can abolish our entrance fee for Makor (though we offer help to all those who need it—financial difficulty should never prevent a child at Temple Beth Or from learning!), but I have great admiration for how committed Hillel, Rabbi Meir, and Rabbi Nathan were to learning Torah. I have to imagine that if these sages lived in a society where a summer break existed, and where their beit midrash closed each year for months at a time, they would find other ways to quench their thirst for Torah.
As the summer begins and we at Makor relinquish the blessing of spending Sunday morning with your children, it is worth trying to emulate the model of these great students. Find ways to keep your children’s minds active and their Jewish identities thriving all through May, June, July, and August!
I would like to wish all of you a joyful summer and thank you for helping to make Makor a phenomenal success this year. I look forward to seeing everyone, parents and children alike, back this fall for another great year of Makor!
Rabbi Ari Ballaban
*Tractate Horayoth 13b ** Tractate Yoma 35b