Walking through the Old City of Jerusalem, surrounded by ancient walls so rich with my people’s history, I cannot but be awestruck that this is where I call home. I have opted-in to spending a year learning in Yeshiva, an institution designed for it’s students to become engaged with traditional Jewish text, thought, practice and history.
The days start early in the Old City as we rush to morning prayers by 7:40. Following breakfast and any learning that can be squeezed in to the set time slot, we spend the first half of the day studying Talmud, the great commentary and companion to the Mishna, or the Oral Law of Sinai. We listen to gripping lectures by our Rabbi on what we will be studying that day, and sit in pairs and try to decipher on our own what exactly the Talmud is trying to communicate to us. We passionately debate and uncover values, Truths, and ways we are meant to act. We then have two hours of break before returning to the Beit Midrash, house of study, for more classes on various topics including Bible, Jewish thought, and a plethora of great Jewish thinkers and their respective philosophies. We have an hour to learn on our own and explore anything of personal interest, an hour for dinner, and then two more hours of Talmud. The schedule officially ends at ten o’clock, but for some the learning doesn’t end until much later as the doors to the beit midrash never close.
Growing up in Miami, it was always assumed that I would take this year to study in yeshiva, and the idea constantly excited me. However, whenever I spoke to a Rabbi or student of a yeshiva that I was interested in, I always voiced the same concern: the schedule. How would I be able to sit and learn all day, when I can barely sit through a 45 minute History lecture? How will I handle learning what appears to be such narrow and particularistic material? Will I solely be looking forward to the lunch break every day?
Upon arrival, my concerns were validated by my peers who admitted to having the same ones. Seven months after arrival, I sit in the beit midrash and smirk at such notions. I can proudly affirm that these prior concerns were misguided, and it feels a bit strange because I remember so vividly and genuinely expressing them.
I’ve learned and picked up on several universal values in yeshiva, values that I only hope to build upon and share with others, such as the value of time. Being that the schedule here is so demanding, I am forced to make time for activities not built in to my yeshiva schedule such as exercising, doing laundry, socializing, writing, and any learning projects I wish to take on (which have been one too many). Earlier in the year, my days revolved around such aforementioned activities during breaks, but my conception of time has since evolved and upgraded. Now, I make an active effort to not even pay attention to the time! I’ve realized how much my thoughts can be dominated by future plans, that I become removed from the present. I keep my (wrist)watch in my pocket and phone far away when I don’t need it, and consequently feel much more involved in my learning and other pursuits.
I’ve eliminated the idea of “wasting time,” and often have a book with me while running errands, or headphones plugged in as my phone plays a recording of a Shiur, or Torah lesson. Conversely, at times I deliberately don’t take anything with me at all which forces me to be entertain myself by listening to my own inner voice and thoughts. It’s remarkable how out of touch one can be with what goes on inside, which is itself a statement of what one values. It feels so whole to be assured in my thoughts and feelings that I now experience an inner sense of guilt while not being productive. More so, I’ve learned how important it is to define and contextualize the word “productive” in the first place.
The next succession in my conception of time is how I relate to the present as it correlates to the past and future. When I view myself as having a role in the larger historical narrative of both my nation and all of humanity, I cannot exclusively think in terms of the present. All my actions are a result of my complex history and steps towards the larger goal of living a meaningful life in the context of the Jewish and global communities. What I do with my time has serious ramifications and thus makes me feel like every second is precious and an opportunity. Even during my designated time to relax, it’s with a larger goal in mind. Time has taken on a new definition, and I only hope to continue expanding my understanding and practice of it.
My grasp of artful articulation and understanding have also matured in yeshiva. The Talmud is extremely abstruse, and learning it is an act of decoding. We learn in pairs and must communicate to progress, making our words and expressions extremely important- we’re trying to explain something that feels so above us, yet within us simultaneously. The Talmud is an established source that I strive to, as opposed to just speaking from my gut and trying to make defined concepts in the Talmud gravitate towards my original intuitions. In the process, I try to grapple my thoughts around values and ideas that are eternal. With all this being accomplished in the beit midrash, I learn the deep value and power of words. Why use my words for corruption, when I know the real satisfaction of using them loftily?
Additionally, I am surrounded by world class Rabbis, all of whom have advanced degrees in disciplines like Philosophy, Education, and Talmud. These are not only brilliant teachers, but high quality people. It seems as if my Rabbis have mastered the skill of listening and processing information, and their ability to explain texts in hebrew and aramaic using accessible and academic words is remarkable. Naturally, my friends and I try to emulate our Rabbis in this regard, manifesting itself in the high caliber conversations we have on our own. We discuss Torah values, moral conflicts, and emotions, and often respectfully disagree. This forces us to patiently break down and clarify convictions, and just overall be committed to the conversation- something shockingly refreshing.
These skills that I’ve gained from learning Talmud are completely applicable to the rest of my life- I constantly catch myself asking questions, looking for sources of truth, and explaining my thoughts. I feel more aware, in tune with information processing, and confident in elocution. In college and beyond, I look forward to furthering this idea of effective dialogue.
And thus we arrive at the big irony that comes with learning and being human. The more I explore such universal ideas as time management, vocalization, and all that Judaism has to offer, the more humbled I feel. The world is teeming with fresh ideas and emotions, and the more I learn, the more apparent it becomes to me how little I know. This is the paradox- that I take gratification in the comfort of how little I really know. This gratification stems from my understanding that life is a process, and the goal isn’t the end. Surely, if a dancer only danced for the purposes of being finished dancing, that dancer would not be happy. Likewise, my goal is not to know every idea and value that exists, but rather to constantly be in a state of learning and growing. I know this voyage we call life can be maximized with this mentality, and I feel happy every time I remind myself of this thought process. I feel present, in tune, and content with my place in history, all with a sense of urgency to progress. If every day I am thankful and cognizant that my end goal of being my best and truest self is a never-ending process and not actually an end goal, I am optimistic that I am fulfilling the purpose that I know I was created for.
So yes, my schedule does focus on Jewish studies, but are the values I’m learning really particularistic at all?