Sunday, November 1, 2009

Say it Out Loud: The Library and the Beit Midrash

You can learn a lot about books not just from what’s inside them, but in how they are studied. Libraries across the world all share a common picture: massive stacks of books of all topics interspersed with desks where each person sits and reads quietly.

From where did the rule originate that inside such a massive storehouse of knowledge one must maintain absolute silence?

Anyone who walks into a Beit Midrash (House of Study) will see a completely different scene. People are arguing, hands are waving; others are standing, rocking in their chairs in front of a Talmud, or pacing around the room.

Why is the Beit Midrash such a raucous scene?

A fitting insight comes from the Maharal of Prague. He gives an interpretation of the first blessing over the Torah, in which we say la’asok b’divrei Torah, to involve one’s self with the words of Torah. The language of the blessing is unusual; it would have been much more straightforward for our sages to compose the blessing as “to learn the words of Torah.”

The formulation of the blessing teaches us how the Torah should be learned. In almost all cases after a blessing is said, the corresponding mitzvah action follows immediately. So in order to fulfill the mitzvah of learning Torah, there must also be an action. Therefore, simply contemplating the words of Torah may not fulfill the mitzvah—we must speak the words. The act of dialogue is the mitzvah of learning Torah.

Dialogue allows for a deep engagement with the text, as well as with the person with whom we are learning. The Beit Midrash, as opposed to the library, is a place where the texts are tangibly alive, not a book moratorium where texts must rest in peace. The discussions and arguments illustrate the passion that we have for God’s word, and allow for their understanding on the deepest level.

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