Rabbi Sessler D’var Torah

Wisdom and Knowledge

Shimon Peres, from whom we parted earlier this week, never graduated college. Peres did spend about a year in the United States, taking courses at Harvard University and NYU during the early 1950’s, but he never earned enough course credits in order to complete and earn his B.A.

Peres was simply too busy making history, building Israel, and changing the world. But despite Peres’s lack of formal education, he was a supreme autodidact, and a self-taught genius. The sheer depth and width of Peres’s knowledge surpassed by far the knowledge of numerous accomplished scholars, professors, and Ph.D.’s.

Throughout his life, Peres would spend every morning reading books for an hour after breakfast, between six and seven a.m.

He read three books a week, and he always recommended his interlocutors to also read three books a week: one history book or a biography of a great historical figure, one work of literature or poetry, and one book about scientific or technological issues.

Today we live in an era in which grades and G.P.A’s are the name of the game. We and our children are so focused on getting the right grades, in order to make it to the right schools and then professionalize in one specific and narrow domain, that the ideal of learning for the sake of learning, of learning in order to know and to expand our horizons, of learning in order to grow in soul, all this has been greatly marginalized and undermined by the utilitarian quest for the superficial ideal and cult of “Success”.

It was Mark Twain who famously said: “I have never allowed my schooling to interfere with my education.” By this, the great American author meant to say that setting aside systemic and structural studies in formal academic institutions, one should never neglect and suppress the inner yearning of the refined spirit which always thirsts to learn, for learning is “Our life and the length of our days”, the very raison d’etre of our being, as the second paragraph of the Arvit prayer so beautifully states.

“The unexamined life is not worth living”, teaches us the ancient sage Socrates, and there is no self-examination and introspection in the absence of fundamental intellectual tools and assets. And as the Mishnah states: “An ignoramus fears not sin, and the uneducated will fail to achieve piety.”

In Judaism, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is a supreme and ennobling ideal. Learning intrinsically for the sake of learning is called in Hebrew “Lishma”, which means for “Her own name’s sake”, “her” being the Torah, “her” being the Shechinah (Divine presence), and “her” being the Godly soul.

All too often, we confuse in our time the infinite flow of information online with knowledge. Information is mere raw data, but knowledge is wisdom – it is a deeply embedded form of knowing which we internalize into the core of our being, and which enhances our existential gaze and perspective. Information is parasitical and spoon-fed (think Google or Wikipedia), whereas wisdom is hard-earned through numerous years of active effort and laborious exertion.

One of the manifold gifts which we can bestow upon ourselves and our children for the coming Jewish year, is to continue to read and to learn in order to grow in soul and to evolve, and to not only study formally and instrumentally in order to make lots of money.

“And you shall teach them diligently to your children” states the Shema prayer (Deuteronomy 11:19).

Teach your children and grandchildren by way of personal example to read in order to know, and to learn in order to grow in character and inner stature. For it will make your children wiser, and also – spiritually prosperous and wealthy. And most importantly, it will arm your descendants with awesome and mighty tools for the attainment of enduring joy and inner satiation.

Reading for the sake of knowing will empower your children to live in light of timeless values and ideals, in light of worthy principles which supersede and transcend the exigencies and dictates of the global market economy, and the capitalist system in which we all compete against each other for sustenance and material well-being.

For the refined and evolved person, learning is synonymous with being. This too, is one of the numerous life-lessons which we can and should learn from the life and legacy of Shimon Peres. Let us walk in his light, and let us emulate his ways.

Shabbat Shalom and Shannah Tovah,

Rabbi Sessler

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