Words and Wonders

1.4.          Yose ben Yoezer, of Tzereidah, and Yose ben Yohanan, of Jerusalem, received the tradition from him.

Yose ben Yoezer of Tzereidah, taught:

Make your home a regular meeting place for the scholars;
Sit eagerly at their feet and drink thirstily of their words.

This is an exiting lesson, since for the first time, although I still can’t understand all the Hebrew, I can recognize at least the roots of most of the words! It makes me want to put more energy and effort into speaking Hebrew. I enjoy speaking Hebrew, and I often find myself going to say “slichah” when I’m about to say “excuse me” or “todah” when I’m about to say “thank you.”

I had thought I might fill this commentary with a lot of talk about leadership, seeing as how I just returned from the North Carolina Community College Leadership Institute in Raleigh, but I think I’ll save those lessons and thoughts for another day. Today I want to talk about words.

And scholars. What does it mean to make your home a regular meeting place for scholars? On the one hand, it could simply mean that we should invite the wise into our homes (such as turning on the Discovery channel or Nat Geo every now then, or even better—and usually more reliable—changing the channel to PBS every Tuesday for NOVA—now that would be wise!), but I think it could mean something else, at least when studied in the English. (In English, we have metaphor; in Hebrew, we might not, at least not constructed in the same way, I mean.)

So when I now read to make your home a meeting place of scholars, I understand the words to mean the opposite, to make the meeting place of scholars your home. We’re all familiar with the saying “home is where the heart is,” and I believe this lesson, at least in part, is to put your heart so much into studying and learning that home is wherever scholars are—that home is wherever you’re learning. This applies to me a lot these days: In Raleigh I felt right at home while I was at the SLI this past week. At GTCC where I go to school, I feel at home in class and out of class, walking the paths that scholars walk every day of the year.

Does that mean we all have to be hermits and hide with our books? Quite the contrary. It means we have to open our hearts to learning, so that when we’re given the chance to learn, it can be like we’re at home no matter where we are. And should we (for we should) invite scholars into our homes, and hopefully live with wise people if we can, all the better for everyone.

But what about words? I had mentioned they would be the basis of my commentary, had I not? I had! And they are. You’re reading words right now (and I hope you’ll continue), are you not? And I’ve been reading words all my life: On street signs, on commercials, on PowerPoint slides and in textbooks, cook books, and game manuals to boot. But there are some words I still can’t understand, no matter how many times I read them: German words, Spanish words, Russian words, Hebrew words (and the list goes on, believe me—there are even words out there I don’t understand that I don’t even know yet, so forgive me for stopping here). My point, however, is that out of all of these words I don’t know, I do understand some of them, even if only a few of them.

Every student sits at the feet of another metaphorically when he or she is learning from someone. That’s a clear comparison and needs no further discussion. But how does one drink words? Certainly, if I could open my mouth and sip them up like soup, I’d digest them more easily, but words are sounds—vibrations, nothing more solid than light, one could say. To try to swallow one would mean to choke, most likely violently, and that would be no lesson other than to not try to swallow words again. So how can one drink them, safely?

I know for one thing it does not involve putting them in one ear and letting them drain out the other. I can also say that it definitely does not include letting them slide off the skin like pebbles off a rock wall. I can yet say that it’s unlikely to entail mixing them up, turning them around, or even simply hearing them. It involves sincerely listening to them. It involves taking notes, perhaps, or taking care to remember them. It means responding to them, restating them, making certain what was clear to the speaker is now clear to us. It means communicating, not just passively sitting by and getting words tossed in our faces. It means eating them slowly, so as to not cause indigestion, and in moderation, so as to not cause loss of appetite later on.

Drink thirstily. Don’t be thirsty. Don’t be parched. To be parched is to suffer from dryness; but to be thirsty is to need to end that dryness. Yet we wish to drink thirstily, as if we need to quench that need of knowledge, not to actually be thirsty. We can have knowledge, yes, but we should still yearn to learn more. We can sate the body with water, but to sate the soul and the mind we need more. We can thirst for knowledge, but not feel parched of it; we can crave to learn more, but not suffer from not already knowing. We can drink to be merry, and we should: We should seek our opportunities to dine on words and then drink them in excess.

Words are wonderful. Words and wonders. It’s what I stand for; it’s what I stand by. This is not so much a lesson then, but a poem, in the end. It’s a restatement to long for knowledge and to make learning your home, to yearn to sustain your mind as much as you sustain your body.

No one sells liquid knowledge, so we should drink whatever of it is offered to us, no matter from whom it is given. However, we should pay careful attention to all that we ingest, lest we be poisoned by the words of the foolish or selfish, and extol those words that we drink of the scholars, of the wise, who teach us for our sakes and most certainly not for theirs.

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