A Song for the Seige of Society

Last week left me no time, but this week has left me plenty, and I’m happy to return to this once more. I must say, though, this teaching is not only longer than usual, it appears, but also a little more challenging to decipher. Why not take a look and see what you think?

2.2 Rabban Gamliel, son of Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Nassi, taught:

The study of Torah is commendable when combined with a gainful occupation, for when a person toils in both, sin is driven out of mind. Study alone without an occupation leads to idleness, and ultimately to sin. All who serve in behalf of the community should do so for Heaven’s sake. Their work will prosper because the inherited merit of our ancestors endures forever. God will abundantly reward them as though they had achieved it all through their own efforts.

From this, after reading it nearly half a dozen times, I derive two points of inflection: The first, that knowledge without purpose is not knowledge but misdirection, and the second, that progression built upon the work of others still remains a singular endeavor.

Both of these seem straightforward enough on their own, but I feel as if a straightforward solution is sometimes the easiest to miss. It’s too simple, we think, and therefore not important enough or else not significant enough. And trust me, both of these are quite important and quite significant enough, if only–as with any lesson–you look at it deeply enough.

So read on, my friend, and let’s see if we can decipher this together.

I’m a fan of music. It’s a rarity these days, as I think it always has been, if I’ve been by myself and not had music playing. Right now, even, I’ve got music playing (“The Edge of Glory” from Lady Gaga’s latest album, Born This Way), though usually I write these lessons in silence. Sometimes it seems like I focus better on deep thought without distractions, although sometimes it feels like I can only focus with music playing or else all the other small distractions steal my mind in minuscule pieces until I’m left with nothing in my head at all.

Within the past few weeks, I’ve delighted in receiving two CDs that I’ve waited months to finally listen to. And, in all honesty, the first time I listened to either of them, I didn’t like them very much. By the time the third, or sixth, or even tenth and thirteenth plays, however, I was in love. It’s no surprise that familiarity leads to love, which is the sole reason I can stand some artists when they come on the radio, but what’s more impressive (or perhaps, if not impressive, more paramount to the current topic) is that I didn’t come to love these CDs just by listening to them. I never listen to something alone. I’m always doing something else, working somewhere else, imbibing the rest of my life with this music.

I was once told that women form strong relationships through sharing emotions while men form strong relationships by sharing experiences. Luckily, neither my mind, my body, nor my very soul is confined by the dichotomy of gender stereotypes and I have the fortune of being able to form strong relationships through both means, and even more strongly through both simultaneously. I think this is a capability that many people possess, but I think because of those stereotypes, many men and many women neglect the possibility of exploiting these practices. I especially feel that since women have been liberated, men have become enslaved–not by women directly, but by a double standard that states it’s alright for the definition of femininity to change but it’s not alright for the definition of masculinity to change. That, however, is a discussion best left for another day, and for my own sanity and structure, I must gladly digress.

You see, I build strong relationships with my music: I live it, I breathe it, I belong to it. On one level, as I listen to it, the beats and cadence of each breath speak to me, sending electric signals through my mind that elicits responses called emotions, as the lyrics sing of situations and stories within which I am drenched until the song is over, to which I relate and meditate and subjugate until the song and my soul are a single whole. All the while, my body moves elsewise, reading a book or playing a video game or cleaning parts of my room (and parts of my closet) that haven’t seen the light of day in years. This shared binding of emotion and experience leaves me connected to my music in a way I could only dream of becoming connected to another human being. At times, I’ve felt this unbreakable bond–and more so recently than I’ve ever been fortuned before–but even so, these unbreakable bonds are few and far from common.

One could venture to say (although perhaps I would not) that neither the music nor the action, neither the emotion nor the experience, mean anything alone. Only by combining them into a whole does either gain importance or significance. Likewise, we can compare the music to knowledge and the action to occupation: Without one, the other ceases to bear as much weight as before.

A lawyer without knowledge of law is no good, but neither is the knowledge of law if a lawyer doesn’t use it. A medical license means nothing without practice, but a practice means even less without a license. One can say (and often will) that the two are not mutually exclusive, but I insist–for obvious reasons–that this is not the case, that it is only when they come together that they serve their purpose. Otherwise, in any case you may wish to present, the end result is only waste–and what is waste but a precursor to sin, and what is sin but misdirection?

Of course, this teaching is not as general as this conclusion, but more particular to the study of Torah itself. If the Torah is a code of holiness, an instruction manual to a righteous life, then what occupation is suitable enough for this knowledge to become useful? Simply put, any occupation is worthy enough if this knowledge is readily employed–and there is no occupation in which it cannot be. Lawyers, doctors, educators, service workers, and others can put to good use the lessons the Torah teaches about how to live a good life.

A while ago I was speaking with my boyfriend about possible colleges I might attend after I graduate next spring. In particular I was telling him how List College, part of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, offers a dual-degree program with Columbia University’s School of General Studies, which I’ve been told about as a member of Phi Theta Kappa. List College, for those unaware, has only a dozen or so majors and all of them are Jewish in nature, which is why a dual-degree can be such an incredible option. I was telling Alex that I could get my BS in Math while pursuing a second major in a field of Jewish studies, which I have always loved learning about. At the time I was most intrigued in the possibility of Jewish philosophy, as this field would be most easily applied to any other field I go into. Once again, I was realizing that there is an intimate connection between knowledge and occupation, and it is not a connection that can carefully be disregarded, and I think this is a lesson that many more people are coming to realize as they go throughout their college educations.

I must confess, however, that this revelation has not come to me by myself: I’ve had plenty of leaders and teachers who have aided me in discovering this end result. According to the second lesson in this teaching however, their merits mean nothing in comparison to mine: It’s not the foundation that has worth, but the finished product.

I completely disagree.

As any avid reader might have realized, I try to be most thankful–and whenever I can, I give due credit to those who have come before me. Without my teachers, without Einstein and Newton, without those aimless souls at the dawn of time who discovered direction, I would not be here. If not for the sneeze in the arctic that caused the temperature shift that formed the iceberg that sunk the Titanic, I would not be here. There is no end to the trees we can trace to all the people responsible for our creation, and to them we will always owe our endless gratitude.

I’ve also learned that these words are here for a reason. We cannot change the words, so if they make no sense, we must change our perspective. After a few moments of consideration, I happen to think that this line of thought is not wholly disconnected from the teaching’s. Instead, if we follow all these trees back to a common root, we’ll find that they all lead somewhere: To the ultimate creator, to God, and if we look back at the words of the teaching, we’ll see this even more evidently: “Their work will prosper because the inherited merit of our ancestors endures forever. God will abundantly reward them as though they had achieved it all through their own efforts.”

All these happenings that have put us here have been ordained by God, whether in some primal planning room where all of time was written or else in the moment of occurrence it does not distinguish, but by this revelation we can conclude that when we take what we have worked for and take the reward as our own, it is not because we have disregarded those before us, but because everything was in place for a purpose, and our purpose was to use it to create our own lives. God has placed each of us in this position, and God knows that it is through our own hands that we have shaped ourselves. When he rewards us, it truly is as if all the world has been created for each of us alone.

Let’s look at it like this: There’s a scientific thought that all things that exist can be summed down to a single set of bits and bytes, small figures of information that cannot be destroyed, cannot be created, but are ultimately preserved–bits of information that endure forever. Suppose now all the information in the world comprises the knowledge we each have at our disposal. Now, if we’re not stretching the limits of our imaginings, suppose that life is itself an occupation all its own in which each of us are employed. Now we’re not left with two teachings, but find ourselves back at the first: Without putting to use our knowledge, we are lost in a sea of misdirection.

All of the opportunities that I have been given would have been lost and become nothing if I had not taken them as my own and made of them what has made me who I am. The same can be said of anyone, anywhere, at any time throughout history or the world ahead of us. As I said in my last post, the world is ours for the taking, but we must take that first step to reach out for it to make it our own.

And isn’t that ironic, don’t you think?

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One thought on “A Song for the Seige of Society

  1. That last line then points to the fact that the present cumulative count outweighs the previous total entirely _because_ it required it, and not in spite of it?

    “God will abundantly reward them as though they had achieved it all through their own efforts.”

    An important piece of that is that you already accept that it is not your own work entirely, but you still went through the effort of understanding what other great minds have done so that you may further improve on something that otherwise wouldn’t have been. As important as the previous successes were, what can be built on them is even more important.

    I am uncertain of whether or not I am making sense, whether or not I am repeating what you said or whether or not this would be relevant if it in fact did make sense and was not a repetition.

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