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Pirke Avot chapter four, verse six

We have been learning from the Avot for—what—a year and a half, now. And why?

R. Ishmael, his son, said, He who learns in order to teach, Heaven will grant him the opportunity both to learn and to teach; but he who learns in order to practice, Heaven will grant him the opportunity to learn and to teach, to observe and to practice.

This is a fairly mild and straightforward note, right? I mean, yes, the purpose of learning the Law is to practice it, and people like YHB who type Scripture study on a computer while engaging in paid employment on the Shabbat are, in the words of the sages, doing it wrong.

It would be a much nicer note, I think, if it said that anyone who learns in order to teach would be led to practice inevitably by the power of learning itself. Not more accurate, but nicer.

I am, by virtue of our just having passed the Passover, reminded of the story of the Four Children which is in our haggadah. Do y’all know it? There are four children: the wise one, the wicked one, the simple one, and the one that cannot ask. The story gives us examples of the behavior of these children, and examples of appropriate paternal responses to them. It’s generally understood that the wise son wins; there is merit in his inquisitiveness. The wicked or rebellious son, who excludes himself from the story, is viewed as a lost cause: if he were with us in Egypt (the haggadah says) he would not have been saved. The simple son is treated gently, and the infant (or so usually we interpret the one who does not know to ask) is introduced to the story only distantly.

The wise son, though. Let’s see if I can find the quote.

What does the wise son say? “What are the testimonials, statutes and laws Hashem our G-d commanded you?” You should tell him about the laws of Pesach, that one may eat no dessert after eating the Pesach offering.

We see that the response to the wise son is in practice, not just in learning and teaching. But is that what the wise son expects? Is he learning in order to practice? The commentaries on the haggadah say yes: the wise son is specifically asking in order that he may fully participate in the seder without violating a commandment. The wise son is not learning in order to teach, but learning in order to practice. And the father in the story, who is also learning in order to practice, must teach as well, not only because the practice of the seder is teaching by practice and demonstration, but because your rotten kids will ask obnoxious questions, or worse, will screw the whole thing up by having the afikomen first and then another bite of Passover Dust Cake. So, and example of learning with intent to practice leading to learning, teaching, observing and practicing.

On the other hand, um. Well, I’m sure that there is another hand because there is always another hand. What would be the point of a verse without another hand? But I can’t think of one right now, so you will have to supply your own.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Well, the other hand, or one possible other hand, is that you have to learn something in a deeper way, I'd argue, to teach it than you do to practice it. Maybe that's less true of the Law than of, say, principles of quality in software development (the thing I often am teaching), but I can practice something without really understanding which parts are key, or why things happen in a certain way -- but when I know I need to teach that thing, then I have to dig deeper. I guess I don't really agree that you can learn something well enough to teach it well if you are only learning with the intent to practice.

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