IF ONLY I COULD SEE THE FOREST

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Chapter Two

A System For Learning

In the midst of the professorís dissertation about the nature of DNA, a young student asked, ďWhy?Ē The professor, assuming the student had missed his point, repeated his explanation.

"But why is it that way?" the student asked again.

This time, the professor catching on to the meaning of the question, changed his demeanor and snapped,

"Mister, this is a biology lecture. Here we study the nature of the human body and how it functions, not why it functions that way. ĎWhyí is a matter for the philosophers!"

Imagine standing inside your house looking out through a window. From your vantage point, the clouds seem to indicate a miserable day. The trees blowing in the breeze make it seem as if it is cold outside. You decide itís a day to stay inside.

Suddenly thereís a knock at your door. Bundling yourself up, you answer the door anticipating cool weather. Upon opening the door you are surprised to see a person wearing only a shirt. You notice itís a warm, balmy day, and say to yourself, "I should get out and go somewhere."

This simple scenario describes much of life and many people throughout history. Humans have a tendency to assume that any idea they donít yet see or relate to must therefore not exist, or at least, must not be true. Otherwise, wouldnít they already know about the idea and see its truth? (Never mind the fact that every day we learn things we once never knew about or thought could never exist!)

Thinking is tiring and time consuming. Being analytical can get you into trouble with people - and with yourself" (You might not like what you discover)! "Ignorance is bliss;" "a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing." There are a number of reasons or, more accurately excuses, why one should not think too deeply. All of them guarantee a person a life "inside the house".

The fact that an idea is a natural part of life does not mean that it isnít worthy of examination. On the contrary, some of mankindís deepest insights come from contemplating the obvious; how much more so is this the case when it comes to the more complex aspects of existence.

Rabbi Yishmael, the son of Rabbi Yosi said: One who learns for the sake of teaching is given the means to study and to teach; and one who studies in order to practice, is give the means to study and to teach, to observe and to practice. (Ethics of Our Fathers, 4:6)
Life is made up of concepts, and all ideas affect us in one way or another, positively or negatively. It is for the individual and society to determine which concepts to adopt and which to avoid.

When one learns only to teach, intimacy with the idea need not be complete, and the understanding of the idea is only partial. To implement an idea correctly one must thoroughly understand it. It is only through depth of understanding that a person becomes intellectually "one" with an idea - the first step to personal growth.

Developing a deeper appreciation of information can be achieved by asking four questions:

1. What is the simple meaning of the idea?
2. Do I agree with this idea?
3. How would I have stated this concept differently, and why?
4. What does this idea teach me about life?
Question One is usually the automatic response when a new idea appears. Question Two requires some level of analysis of the idea. It depends upon how much knowing the idea is a necessity, and how much the person already enjoys or knows how to think. Question Three is rarely addressed by the average person, and Question Four is reserved for the philosophical at heart.

Yet, it is Question Four that transforms technical knowledge into enjoyable understanding. It is Question Four that permits a glance behind the facade of a concept and reveals its expression of reality. This insight, in the end, is what changes a personís way of thinking and stimulates growth.

The fact that so few people think this way explains why self help books are in such great demand, and why there is such a need for superficial stimuli. The more a person is trained to think, the more they enjoy it, the more they gain from life around them, the more they grow, and the happier they can be with less. Life becomes a never ending, always exciting, learning and growing experience.

It is a tragic mistake to assume that, "I think, therefore I think." There is thinking, and then there is thinking, and like most skills, learning how to think properly requires instruction and some form of apprenticeship.

This is why learning is given such great emphasis in Judaism, as opposed to "education". The difference between the two is that education is merely the transference of data from one source to another; learning is the process of changing a person by integrating the essence an idea.

The mishnah states:

Stand up many students ... (Ethics of Our Fathers 1:1)
Donít just teach them, stand them up, i.e., make sure that they know the ideas well enough to live by them. This, of course, is a process that begins at a very early age and continues well into old age.

There are countless other sources that echo this idea. For example, the mishnah states,

There are 48 ways to acquire wisdom... (Ethics of Our Fathers 6:6)
The language of the mishnah itself is instructive. Acquisition implies a two-way process, and thus the mishnah is teaching that one has to give of oneself to acquire wisdom. The mishnah then goes on to state forty-eight ways to achieve integration of a concept - for taking an idea from the level of dayah (knowledge) to haskel (integration).
(As mentioned in the first book of this series, If Only I Were Wealthy, Judaism speaks of three levels of understanding an idea: knowledge, understanding, and discernment (dayah, binah, and haskel). For a more complete explanation of this, see Part Two, Chapter One.)

The following examples illustrate how to implement the above system of learning. At first, it may seem somewhat tedious to analyze everyday information to this degree. At other times, it may seem too strenuous. However, in the end, the gains outweigh the pains, and very often itís just an issue of remembering to ask why just after the how is worked out.

Example One: When driving a car, one must always stop when the light at the intersection facing them turns red.

1. What does this mean?

When driving a car and the light before you turns red, you should stop your car before the intersection and wait.

2. Do you agree with this law?

Yes and no. When driving during regular hours when other cars and people are out in the streets, obeying traffic signals is necessary. However, if Iím the only one at a red light at 12:00 midnight, then I certainly am not going to sit there and wait for the light to turn green (this is an actual quote, from a lawyer of all people!).

3. a) What would you have said differently?

I would have said that red lights must be obeyed during regular driving hours, but that at off-hours itís up to the driver to decide whether or not to wait for the light to turn green.

b) Where do you differ in understanding with those who made the law?

I make one basic assumption that the lawmakers, perhaps, arenít so quick to make. I assume that the average driver is reliable enough to make such a decision. The truth is, with young drivers, and sometimes with drivers who think theyíre not drunk but who really are, and even with me who has been known to drive a little recklessly from time to time, itís not such a safe assumption. Furthermore, who says that people can always see incoming traffic with such precision (especially at night) to accurately judge when itís safe to run a red light or not?

4. What does this law teach you about life?

a) That humans require guidelines and regulations to preserve civility and avoid tragedy;

b) That we assume things about people that are not safe to assume, and weíd do better not to make such assumptions; and

c) On a more philosophical level, that when "driving" on oneís own, life is quite safe, but when it comes to the "inter-sections" of life, it pays to be cautious and check out whoís coming from which direction in order to avoid a "collision" of different points of view and preserve the peace.

Example Two: If a piece of non-kosher meat is mixed together with two pieces of kosher meat, and you canít distinguish one from the other, all the pieces can be treated as kosher meat.
1. What does this mean?

If kosher meat gets mixed up with non-kosher meat, and the kosher meat is the majority, then if you canít tell the difference between the pieces of meat, you can ignore the fact that one piece is not kosher. (Rabbinically, we do not eat all three pieces, but there are different opinions as to what the best solution is.)

2. Do you agree with this idea?

This is a Torah commandment, and who am I to argue with God? But, on the other hand, the law is not as I would have stated it.

3. a) What would you have said differently?

I would have said to treat them all as if theyíre not kosher out of doubt.

b) Where do you differ in thinking with the Law-maker?

My understanding, until now, was that there was something intrinsically not ko-sher about non-kosher food. Because I thought this was intrinsic to the food, then under no circumstances could that reality be changed.

4. What does this teach you about life (what principle about life can you extrapolate) ?

What determines the "kosherness" of something is not the physical reality of the thing in question, but what God thinks about the physical reality of the thing. Was there something intrinsically special about the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, or was it by breaking Godís commandment that Adam and Eve somehow became aware of good and evil? The law mentioned above, and other laws like it, indicate that it is the latter.

Also, this law is based upon the concept of "majority rules," which in itself indicates a level of democracy required even after God has dictated commandments. This teaches us that only within certain divine guidelines are we able to exercise democratic principles with wisdom.

In each case, the knowledge is the technical law or information (i.e., donít drive through a red light or the majority rules). The wisdom is the awareness of how to purposefully apply this know-ledge, i.e., in a way that supports the constructive development of the individual and society as a whole.

This is why it always comes back to the framework and the Tree of Life, for anyone can rationalize how the destruction of one personís world is really constructive overall (the examples are obvious). Harmony must be the motivation, the vision of God in creation and destiny must be the vehicle - and wisdom, not just knowledge, has to be the goal.

© by Mercava Productions

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