An Ounce and a Half

Last week we got lucky: The teaching was short. About as short as this week’s teaching is long. I read it last night, hoping to get a head start on my commentary, to let the ideas stew and steep as I sleep and I wake, to prepare for this moment, but instead I came to nothing. Only a title–a title that doesn’t even seem to fit.

Let’s see if I can make it work.

3.3 Rabbi Hananiah ben Tradyon taught:

When two persons meet and do not exchange words of Torah, they are regarded as a company of scoffers, as it is written, “who joins not in the company of scoffers” (Psalm 1:1). However, when two persons meet and exchange words of Torah, the Shekhinah hovers over them, as it is written, “Then those who fear the Lord conversed with one another; the Lord listened and heard, and a book of records was made before Him, of those who fear the Lord and cherish His name” (Malachi 3:16). This verse implies two persons. Where do we learn that even one person sitting alone, studying Torah, is rewarded by the Holy One, praised-be-He? From the verse, “He shall sit alone and meditate quietly, yet take a reward for it” (Lamentations 3:28).

When I read this last night, I made three observations: First, I’ve spoken before about the importance of studying Torah and sharing words of Torah in the company of others. Second, I’ve exhausted the discussion of fear–especially a discussion of fearing the Lord. Third, I’m drawn to the final few lines of this teaching as the actual lesson. The rest is just commentary.

It’s that final observation that stands out most clearly today. The first few lines are merely preamble: framing the future content, setting the stage, seasoning the pot. We’re reminded that we should always exchange words of Torah in the presence of others or else we risk making scoffers of ourselves, and who would want that? But then–so suddenly, and perhaps this is why it strikes me so heavily–an interjection: “This verse implies two persons.”

What’s important about two persons? Two weeks ago when began this book, I remarked how my study is missing something because I don’t have anyone to study with. Then, when I read this, Rabbi Hananiah continues: “Where do we learn that one sitting alone, studying Torah, is rewarded by the Holy One?” It’s as if, hundreds of years ago, he anticipated my questioning and sought to answer it forthright and outright the moment I needed it.

Let’s make an analogy. Rather, let’s indulge in anecdote. Storytelling is socializing, I’m learning, so I might as well start it all here.

A few years back, I had questioned to my rabbi why certain verses are in the Torah are today disregarded, and our visiting cantor referred me to a verse in the penultimate portion of the Torah, in the book of Dvarim (Deuteronomy), that says, “Take to heart all the words with which I have warned you this day. Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching [the Torah]. For this is not a trifling thing for you: it is your very life” (32:45-47). I pondered this verse for weeks and finally found the lesson I needed to learn was if I perceive something to lack meaning–if I perceive its inclusion as trifling–the fault is not in the content, but in my perception of it. This led me on a journey deeper into Torah than I had ever gone before, to conclusions that resonate within me no matter their validity elsewhere.

What I’m trying to get at is that every teaching–every thing–has a lesson from which we can learn something. Maybe the obvious lesson is something we already know, but if we go in a little deeper or from a different vantage, we can gain worlds of insight into something we had never been privy to beforehand.

When Rabbi Hananiah taught these words, they were not meant only for me. Regardless if they quell uncertainties and quench doubts or calm concerns, there is something deeper still to be gained. And I think I have an inkling what it may be.

Our rabbi here makes an effort to distinguish between two persons and one sitting alone–between groups and individuals. He recognizes what people caught up in today’s culture cannot: there is merit both in company and in solitude. In most of my college courses, especially this past semester, group work and building teamwork skills had been a paramount staple of the class–so much to the point that in some courses, I spent more time listening to my classmates than listening to my teachers. It was frustrating. Infuriating even.

I’m not a loner, and I’m not antisocial, but I am quiet. I take time to think things through and figure them out on my own. It’s how I process the world, how I learn new things. Yes, I’ll study with my classmates–but I won’t feel like I know something until I’ve had time to read the material by myself and work through the problems on my own. Then I’ll begin to gain some confidence. I’m not the only one who thinks like this, behaves like this: I’m one of many introverts in the world, one of many condemned to living in a culture where extroversion is the prescribed ideal.

(And if you’re interested in pursuing this tangent further, I highly encourage you to pick up a copy of Susan Cain’s Quiet or watch her TED talk about introversion.)

Point being, when something is taken to the extreme, it loses the merits gained from moderation. Think of yin and yang: They are completely opposite, but without the balance of being intertwined, they mean nothing. Introversion and extroversion–solitude and company–function much the same way. We are all comfortable with different levels of stimulation, but being able to work both alone and in groups is a valuable skill–not just for the workplace, but for ourselves as well. When we study something with others, we gain feedback and discourse; but when we study something by ourselves, we gain depth and insight into ourselves. Together, the two make an amazing whole–but taken alone, each separated from its other half, the picture will never be complete. The foreground will never meet the background. The flavors will never blend together and taste just right.

Oftentimes I feel like groups are taken as wholes and individuals are made into fractions. We pride ourselves on group-think and team-building and interpersonal-extravaganzas, made to feel incomplete by ourselves. But this isn’t true and this isn’t fair–to any of us. Quiet folk like me are conditioned to feel broken, to not fit in, to neglect our own personal needs in favor of what culture says we should have. More outgoing guys and gals lose the opportunity to get in touch with their true selves and experience genuine contemplation and introspection. We all lose when we cling too strongly to only one side of the equation.

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