Finding Strength at the Edge of Understanding

by Elaina Marshalek, Director of Programs & SVARA Fellow

I was easily in the bottom of the class in my graduate engineering program. I remember one seminar-style class in particular where we’d rotate reviewing and sharing academic papers of mathematical proofs. We worked in pairs. My partner and I, comrades at the bottom, spent hours poring over our assigned paper in order to comprehend the mathematical proof in the paper so we could present our learning – you could say we showed up to class with the inside translation. 

When we got to class and shared our learning, one of the star students not only understood the paper with ease, but translated our string of equations into the vision of a four-dimensional shape that shifted and swayed with the application of different mathematical techniques. It was poetry. Let’s be clear, my classmate and I didn’t follow all the pieces of the actual argument he was making (I still certainly didn’t understand what the heck was going on, and I can’t see in four dimensions). Though I couldn’t do what he did end to end, and I couldn’t match my classmates in deriving new mathematical proofs, I could follow along enough to know that these brilliant minds, working in languages so hard to translate to folks not seeped in this field of knowledge, were doing magical things. All my studying could get me just far enough to comprehend that something material was happening, to recognize the art that was being created before me. 

In that program, I felt consistently that my hours of work had prepared me with just enough mathematical knowledge to eke out a deeper understanding of how ridiculously brilliant my classmates were. 

I relish these types of moments: surfing at the edge of my understanding, balancing between trying to figure out what was going on and getting flashes of the wide expanse of whatever we were learning.

Like math, and many subjects when you get in deep, Talmud learning is vast. It’s rigorous, complex, and unending. Every time I start to get the grasp of something in Talmud learning, I am usually also opening the door to a whole host of new things that I can finally understand that I don’t understand. One of our batei midrash coined the term: confused on a whole new level. 

I want to share a story about Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. You might remember him as the visionary architect of Rabbinic Judaism and the leader who received our tradition from Hillel and Shammai to pass along through his students and all generations. He’s a big deal. Before all that happened though, he was a student in Hillel’s classroom:

Avot D’Rabbi Natan 14

שמונים תלמידים היו להלל הזקן שלשים מהן ראויין שתשרה שכינה עליהן כמשה רבינו אלא שאין דורן ראוי לכך שלשים מהן ראויין לעבר שנה ועשרים בינוניים. גדול שבכולם יונתן בן עוזיאל קטן שבכולן רבן יוחנן בן זכאי

Hillel the Elder had eighty students. Thirty of them were worthy that the Divine Presence rest upon them like Moses our teacher, [and that would have happened,] except that their generation was not worthy of it. Thirty of them were worthy to calculate a leap year. And twenty of them were mediocre. The greatest of them all was Yonatan ben Uziel, and the most inferior of all of them was Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, this integral leader in the transformation of Judaism as we know it, was at the bottom of the class. We see how the class is stratified into different levels, we hear about the potential of the upper echelons of the class, we get the name of the star student, and then we get the name of the lowest, smallest, most inferior student: Yochanan be Zakkai

My hot take: I believe that Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai was the person who told this story.

I’m going to let you in on a secret: a lot of people think they’re “at the bottom of the class.” In the weeks leading up to a semester of learning at SVARA, I have a lot of meetings with people trying to figure out what learning space is right for them, and a lot of this shows up: I talk to rabbis that are afraid that they don’t have enough vocabulary for our shiurim, learners who need one more step of affirmation to know that having their alef-bet is enough to dive into Talmud learning in the original, queer folks who are afraid they are not queer enough (to be clear: that’s not a real thing, but it’s a real fear!). No matter how much gemirna or sevirna we have, it can be easy to find some dimension of learning where we feel just on the edge of understanding, especially with something as infinite as the Talmud. With so many dimensions to choose from, we often find ourselves in the position where we see a comrade paint their four-dimensional poetic shape of the text, and while we can see the beauty of their poetry, we have no idea how they got there. Letting pieces of shiur ‘rise up and fly away,’ might not be an intuitive practice for all. It is scary, especially as adults with so many other experiences under our belts in other areas of our lives, to enter a space where we might be over our heads. 

Reading on in the text, we find a view into what other people said about Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai:

ואמרו עליו על רבן יוחנן בן זכאי שלא הניח מקרא ומשנה גמרא הלכות ואגדות תוספתות דקדוקי תורה ודקדוקי סופרים וכל המדות של חכמים וכל דבר ודבר שבתורה לא הניח שלא למד לקיים מה שנא׳ (משלי ח׳:כ״א) להנחיל אוהבי יש ואוצרותיהם אמלא

And they said about Yohanan ben Zakkai that he did not leave anything aside: Scripture and Mishnah; Talmud, Halakhot, and Aggadot, and all kinds of other material, minutiae of Torah and minutiae of scribal traditions, and all the attributes of the sages. He did not leave aside anything in the Torah, in order to fulfill what they teach (Proverbs 8:21), “I endow substance to those who love me; I will fill their treasuries.”

In Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s eyes he was the lowest in the class, in awe of this peers’ genius. In their eyes, and in the eyes of his disciples (we get the wink here: ואמרו עליו. “And they said about him), he had no flaws, he was not ignorant of anything. Anything! And he could have easily been the student grabbing fairy hours with me to discuss whether he was learned enough to join a shiur, all the while having students flock to learn from him. 

I remember the first summer where I learned Talmud in the original, in a bet midrash with new learners like me who studied next to others that had learned in yeshiva their whole lives. While our morning Talmud shiurim were split by level, our afternoon ones were mixed, and learners in the bottom Talmud level (that was me!) were intentionally paired with others in the top level. This specific pairing of my first chevruta with a seasoned Talmud learner stays lodged in my mind, perhaps like the first time I lost a tooth or rode a bike. In our chevruta, I asked a simple question, something like “what does that word you just said mean?” and it launched us into a deep, beautiful, winding discussion, where we uncovered dazzling ideas that wouldn’t otherwise have been uncovered. I can’t at all remember what we were discussing, but I can feel the memory in my bones–how empowered I felt, and how valued I was by this chevruta miles ahead of me in more gemirna subjects than I knew existed. This is the moment that bound me with Talmud learning as a life practice for good, because through this chevruta I learned that being a seasoned Talmud learner meant, by design, developing the muscle of seeing the inherent magic in your chevruta and the text, and simultaneously drawing beauty and richness out of both of them.

At our best, our batei midrash are places where we know we are all learners and teachers – where there are always some dimensions of Torah to uncover as fresh beginners, and other dimensions where we ground in and lead from.

Next week, we are starting a new semester of learning at SVARA, with almost 250 learners who are going to dive in weekly, wrestle with text, and get confused on a whole new level. My wish for us is that we remember this story: Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was at the bottom of the class, but he showed up. He owned his learning, brought it into the world, and led the band of sages that radically transformed our tradition. We cannot underestimate the potential of our learning to transform ourselves and our world, no matter where we’re placing ourselves in the class. The Torah each one of us uncovers is otzer, it is a treasure. None of it should be left aside and we are all stronger and better for learning it.