Dear Yeshiva and Seminary student,
Over the past few days you’ve been arriving to your new home for the next year or more. Hopefully, you’ve found your room, and at least some of you will have already unpacked your cases. I suspect that you will have met some of your teachers, and if you’ve not yet got your Israeli sim card, you’re working on it as we speak! During this year, you will meet many new people, learn many new things, and visit many new places. It is a year of opportunity and discovery, and one which I hope inspires you in terms of your personal development and religious lifestyle.
Of course, while some of you may be competent Hebrew speakers, there may be those of you whose Hebrew needs some work. For example, if someone calls you ‘Mami’, don’t think that you have been confused with your Mom. Instead, this — like so many other Israeli slang words — is a term of endearment.
However, there are other words that you will use this year which you may well know but may not fully understand; words whose meaning go far deeper than their translation. So as you begin this year I’d like to share the depth and meaning of four specific words with you and, in doing so, try to both inspire and challenge you for the coming year. So here goes!
In modern Hebrew, ‘Zman’ means time, and in Yeshiva and Seminary speak, it means a semester of study. Obviously a semester is made of time, but ultimately, a semester is made by how you use your time, and as you begin this year it is crucial for you to think about what you do with your ‘Zman’.
In his essay titled ‘Sacred and Profane’, Rav Soloveitchik distinguishes between those who live their lives with quantitative ‘Zman’, and those who live with qualitative ‘Zman’. The former are ‘passive personalities’ who ‘measure time by the clock and by the calendar’. For them, ‘the present itself is a lost moment, and a year is endless’. However, the latter measure time ‘by pure quality, creativity and accomplishment’. For such people, ‘no fraction of time…should slip through the fingers’ because ‘eternity may depend upon the brief moment’.
So as you begin Ellul ‘Zman’, ask yourself which attitude you are planning to adopt towards ‘Zman’. Are you going to be passive or active? Are you taking time off or time on? Are you going to measure this year by months or by deeds? Ultimately, is this a year going to be quantitative time, or qualitative time?
In modern Hebrew, ‘Seder’ means order, and in Yeshiva and Seminary speak it refers to the daily schedule of study. However, there is more to ‘Seder’ than where and when you need to be.
To make ‘Seder’ is to make orderliness out of confusion, and ultimately we all need a level of ‘Seder’ in our lives to hold things together. Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv of Kelm once said that ‘orderliness in life is like the clasp of a pearl necklace. If there is no clasp, all the pearls will be lost, and similarly, if a person lacks ‘Seder’, many of the qualities that they have nurtured can be lost’ (quoted in Alei Shur, Vol. 2 p. 320).
At the same time, order means different things to different people, and there is even a debate about the ‘Seder’ of the Torah, with some commentaries claiming that the Torah tells a chronological story, while others explain the order of the Torah thematically rather than chronologically.
So as you start getting into ‘Seder’, try and think about making the best of your time through the value of orderliness, while at the same time always remembering that different people think in different ways, and that what is chaos for one person can be clarity for another.
In modern Hebrew, ‘Shiur’ means class, and it basically means the same in Yeshiva and Seminary. However, ‘Shiur’ actually means a measure of length, volume or time, and thus the word ‘Shiur’ refers to the time-frame for study.
One of the more recent developments in Orthodoxy over the past century has been our focus on ‘shiurim’, which in this case means our interest in defining the quality of a religious act by the measure of a ritual item. However, as we learn in the Mishna (Peah 1:1), there are certain things she’ein lahem shiur – which have no measure, such as the acts of kindness we do to others or even the amount of Torah that we should study.
So while I hope you enjoy the many ‘Shiurim’ you attend, please remember that not everything in life has a ‘shiur’ and that some of the most important mitzvot of Judaism are immeasurable in their scope and impact.
The Hebrew word ‘Makom’ means ‘place’, and it is often used in Yeshiva and Seminary to refer to the place where you sit, study and pray. But beyond finding your place in the classroom or the Beit Midrash, this year is about helping you find your place in the Jewish people.
Sadly, far too many young people struggle with this question and they believe that in order to be part of Orthodoxy, they have to dilute a part of themselves. But this is not true. As Faranak Margolese explains, ‘Judaism is broad enough to fit every personality, at every age, in every generation. That is its strength. That is its beauty. That, in part, is what has helped it survive and thrive throughout the ages’ (Off the Derech p. 330).
So as you spend this year in thought, study and discussion, please think about your ‘Makom’ in the Jewish world. Think about who you are, your unique gifts, and the best ways to express them as a Jew, because ultimately, ‘you have to be you-ish to be Jewish’ (Judy Gruen, The Skeptic and the Rabbi p. 121).
Wishing you all a fabulous year!