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How to Succeed in Learning

Rabbi Elazar said: Be diligent in the study of the Torah; And know how to answer an Apikores, And know before whom you toil, and that your employer is faithful, for He will pay you the reward of your labor.

Rabbi Elazar, as we have seen, was a prized student of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. He is described as “an ever-increasing wellspring” due to his ability to generate creative insights and his keen intellectual prowess. His critical thinking skills were on full display when he provided the all-encompassing answer to the challenge of finding the “straight path,” namely, “a good heart” (Avot 2:9). Rabbi Moshe Almosnino suggests that Rabbi Elazar’s advice in this Mishna reflects his personal trait. He is providing us with recommendations for how to emulate his success in learning Torah. This approach is elaborated on by Rabbi Israel Lipschitz, and his elucidation provides three essential psychological lessons for educational success.

“Be diligent in the study of the Torah” & Grit

Rabbi Lipschitz assumes that diligence alludes to the necessity for daily review of the material covered the previous day. Without commitment and dedication to constant learning and review, success is unlikely. Rambam’s explanation is broader. He connects the word shakud to two different verses, yielding two possible meanings:

The matter of diligence (shkeidah) is from the language of the verse, “as I am diligent upon my word” (Jeremiah 1:12) - meaning to say, quick and energetic. Or its meaning would be, habit and constancy, as in “to be diligent at my doors each day” (Proverbs 8:34).

It is difficult to ascertain which connotation Rabbi Elazar meant, and it will perhaps be most illustrative to assume both. We should demonstrate both alacrity and consistency in learning Torah, and make sure to constantly review previous material.

This understanding aligns well with the psychological construct of grit, a concept we have elaborated on in previous essays (see, for example, Psyched for Avot on 2:12). Grit—a key ingredient for success in many areas of life—entails persistence and resilience despite difficulties, and maintaining passion, purpose, and commitment towards important goals. Talent and intellectual ability can only take a person so far in Torah learning. To be really successful, a person must approach learning with grit.

“Know how to answer an Apikores” & Critical Thinking

Who is an Apikores and how do we know what to answer him? In his commentary to Mishna Sanhedrin, Rambam understands the word Apikores as having Aramaic origins, and it means deriding Torah or Torah sages. Practically, according to Rambam, it includes anyone who doesn’t believe in fundamental Torah principles or who disgraces a Torah sage. In his commentary to this Mishna, Rambam doesn’t explain what an Apikores is, but distinguishes, based on the Talmud (Sanhedrin 38b), between a non-Jewish Apikores, who we should learn how to argue with, and a Jewish Apikores, who is not worth debating. Rabbi Shimeon ben Zemah Duran (Rashbatz) suggests that Apikores may be referencing the Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Epicureans professed heretical notions, such as not believing in Divine intervention, and that the soul does not survive after death. Scholars have noted that during Mishnaic times, Epicureans would commonly missionize in the land of Israel, which would suggest taking Rabbi Eliezer’s advice at the time, quite literally (see Labendz, 2003).

In terms of how to know what to respond to an Apikores, Rashbatz writes that it is based on this Mishna that “we have allowed ourselves permission” to learn the wisdom of the non-Jews, to be able to defend the Torah against any of their accusations. In contrast, Rabbeinu Yonah links “Know how to answer an Apikores” with the first clause of “be diligent in the study of Torah”: the way to know how to respond to an Apikores is to learn Torah diligently.

Instead of addressing what one needs to learn to respond to an Apikores, Rabbi Lipschitz focuses on how one should learn in order to respond to an Apikores. Learning requires deep penetration of the content, not budging from the idea until it is fully understood. Elaborating on his methodology, he encourages the learner to ask seven questions on each idea: who, what, to whom, when, where, how and why. After that, to perform a close reading of the words. Is there an extra word? Why was this word chosen over another one? Once the details of the immediate context are clarified, explore related and surrounding concepts. How does this relate to previously learned content? Is there a contradiction?

These critical thinking tools are necessary, particularly if we want to be able to respond to an Apikores. In contrast to explaining something to a fellow believer, who would likely accept an idea just because it is part of the tradition, an Apikores would expect an explanation that makes sense rationally. Consequently, when learning, we need to be able to analyze the ideas from all angles and be able to explain the concepts clearly and comprehensively.

“Know before whom you toil” & Emotional Control

Rabbi Elazar’s third clause, “Know before whom you toil” seems like good advice regardless of context. Indeed, this is how Sforno understands the message: “for it is proper that you increase your toil in His honor.” Other commentaries, however, understand the message as connected to the other messages of the Mishna. Rambam writes that since we may need to learn heretical notions to learn how to respond to an Apikores, we need to keep God at the forefront of that endeavor, in order to not be drawn into their arguments. While coming to a similar conclusion, Bartenura understands the “whom” in “know before whom you toil” to not be referring to God, but to the Apikores. We should keep in mind who we are debating and be cautious not to get misled by their arguments.

Following his approach that each element of this Mishna relates to advice for Torah study, Rabbi Lipschitz explains that knowing “before him you toil” will also help with effective learning. One of the biggest challenges to grit and critical thinking is getting distracted by internal thoughts or disturbing emotions. Reminding ourselves that we are in the presence of God while learning will allow for “removal of worry” and any other distracting thoughts we may experience. Perhaps we can add that framing our learning for the sake of God will help build and maintain the motivation and passion necessary to persevere.

In all, by following the framing of the Mishna suggested by Rabbi Lipschitz, we are able to glean three educational psychology lessons to help us follow in Rabbi Elazar’s footsteps of sharp intellectual abilities in the service of Torah study. If we (1) learn consistently and constantly with grit, (2) critically analyze content from all angles generating rational acuity and clarity, and (3) maintain focus on God and Torah, not on distracting thoughts and emotions, we will be well on our way to becoming “an ever-increasing wellspring” of Torah knowledge.


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