Remember the frustration of High School Spanish; trying to memorize all those vocabulary words, work through the syntax and the endless assortment of seemingly arbitrary rules. Aggravation seemed to turn to despair when you heard a four-year-old effortlessly transition from English to Spanish with no hesitation, or stumbled pauses.
Why do children in multilingual homes succeed where intelligent, educated adults fail so miserably? One theory holds that the adults don’t allow themselves to learn the new language; instead, they merely improve their proficiency at translating from their native language into their adopted tongue. Thus the comical consequences of translated colloquiums; try translating “hold your horses” into French and then see the perplexed reaction of the rushed Frenchman, it just doesn’t work. Whereas a child growing up speaking two distinct languages, does not critique the terminology, there’s no analysis of which language makes more sense, they simply absorb both languages.
Hashem’s choice to give the Torah in a barren wilderness underscores the key to learning Torah. Deflate your identity, abandon all templates of what things are presumed to mean, check your ego at the door and then you are ready to learn to “speak Torah,” otherwise we run the risk of “translating” Torah into our lingo.
It’s so tempting to revert back to what I already know. That’s what all the other nations did when Hashem visited their hometown during the “Who wants the Torah” worldwide tour. Their response: if it doesn’t conform to what I already know, then no thanks.”
And so it goes. Each day the challenge repeats itself. Ideas come our way, and we make a choice: do I project my perspective onto them, simply summarize the profundity with the same quaint summary I’ve used so often to cut so many cookies or do I allow myself to be transported, inspired, amazed and even challenged by novel insight. Am I willing to be dumbfounded, to be “stupid” and learn something new?
In the potential of the wilderness, Torah invites us on a journey to its limitless heights. Fare to board this hot air balloon is jettisoning the ballast of what you already know. Then comes the really exciting part, once up in the air you get to steer. Once subsumed into the material the path it explores is yours to direct and discover.
In the early 1970’s an accomplished academic began to study Torah, anxious to explore his newfound passion he sent a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, זצ’ל with a list of scholarly questions. The Rebbe responded with a hint towards patience; in the Rebbe’s sweet way he said: you don’t know enough to ask questions, study first, ask questions later. Time went on, he studied, those original questions faded and more sophisticated ones replaced them and a lifetime of learning was underway. Now it was the genuine study of the material, far different than the impetuous challenges of the novice.
Shavuos takes us to the wilderness, to a place and mindset where we know nothing allowing us to learn something. Seven weeks out of the Egyptian experience of dismissal of anything foreign or novel, seven weeks of exorcising Egyptian self-certainty denial of the Infinite – all knowledge is here – we arrive at the wilderness – the emptiness – of space and person – and thus we are able to truly learn.
This is the gift of Shavuos – the challenge of accepting the Torah – the declaration of: “we will do and then we will understand.” It’s a super-rational commitment of deed that empowers understanding rather than “if it works for me I will do it.” This is the concept called bitul – a nuanced phrase that combines total obedience with absolute stewardship for the mission; one that asks for all my skills and none of my opinions. This is Shavuos – the willingness to be “dumb’ in order to be educated; to get over ourselves and let Hashem in.
So let’s learn to speak Torah – to absorb Torah’s message without preconceived notions of how it should be – that’s true Liberty! May we all receive the Torah with joy and make it personalized!