Authentic Learning

And Hashem called to Moshe. And Hashem spoke to him from the Ohel Moed saying, “Speak to Bnai Yisrael and say to them: When a person from among you offers a sacrifice to Hashem, you should offer your sacrifice from cattle and from the flock.” (Sefer VaYikra 1:1-2)

1. Hashem’s regard for Moshe
The above two passages introduce Sefer VaYikra. The midrash is concerned with an obvious problem. The language of the first passage seems to be redundant. First, it states that Hashem called to Moshe. Then, it states that He spoke to Moshe from the Tabernacle – the Ohel Moed. The passage could have omitted the initial phrase and began, “And Hashem spoke to Moshe from the Ohel Moed”. What is the purpose of the preamble of “And Hashem called to Moshe”?[1]

The midrash responds that before imparting to Moshe the substance of His message, Hashem summoned Moshe. In other words, He called to him “Moshe, Moshe” inviting His prophet to receive His message. The midrash explains that Hashem’s employ of an invitation was an expression of endearment. Furthermore, every prophetic episode that Moshe experienced was preceded by this invitation.[2]

2. The Torah’s sections – parshiyot – and their significance
The midrash continues with a further comment. In order to understand this comment an introduction is required. The Torah is divided into parshiyot – sections. The term parasha (singular of parshiyot) is often used to refer to the weekly Torah portion. However, the term more accurately refers to any section within the Torah. The weekly portion is actually composed of multiple smaller sections. Each of these sections is separated from the preceding and following section by a break or space in the text.[3]

A column from a Torah. Each parasha is separated
from the preceding and following parasha by a
break in the text.

The midrash explains that Moshe received an invitation from Hashem at the initiation of each prophecy. However, he did not receive a separate invitation after each interruption.[4] The commentators explain the meaning of this statement. Each of the separations in the Torah between parshiyot represents an actual interruption that Moshe experienced as Hashem revealed to him the Torah. In other words, the space between parshiyot communicates that when Moshe received the prophecy recorded in the Torah, Hashem paused and then, after an interlude, the prophecy resumed. This resumption of the prophecy was not preceded by a new invitation.

In summary, the position of the midrash is that every time the Torah indicates the initiation of a prophecy experienced by Moshe, it is assumed that the episode began with a summons or invitation. In the course of the prophecy, Moshe may have experienced interruptions – indicated by breaks in the Torah’s text. However, the resumption of the prophecy after each interruption was not preceded by a new invitation.[5]

Before considering the next comment of the midrash, the implications of the above material must be considered. Korban Aharon explains that it is clear from the midrash that the interruptions that Moshe experienced in the course of the prophetic experience should not be regarded as actual interruptions within the prophetic process. These interruptions were not followed by a new invitation. The absence of a new invitation indicates that the resumption of the prophetic experience was not the initiation of a new prophecy. It was the resumption of the prophecy Moshe was experiencing prior to the interruption. In other words, the interruptions were only pauses in the prophetic experience and not terminations of the experience followed by initiation of a new experience after the interruption.[6]

3. The function of the pauses in Moshe’s prophetic experience
Now, the midrash’s next comment can be considered. The midrash asks, “What was the function of the interruptions?” As explained, these interruptions were actually only pauses within an ongoing prophetic experience. What was the purpose of these pauses? The midrash explains that these pauses provided Moshe the opportunity to consider the prophetic material that had been revealed to him before proceeding to the next element of the prophecy.[7]

The implication of the midrash’s comments is significant. The pauses that Moshe experienced in his prophetic episodes were not initiated by Moshe. They were not a consequence of Moshe asking Hashem to pause on his behalf. The midrash is positing that the pauses were an integral element of the prophetic experience. Through the pauses, the contemplative element was integrated into the prophetic experience. Moshe did not experience revelation as a passive recipient. The very structure of the prophetic experience included opportunity and the imperative that Moshe consider and ponder each element of the prophecy.

The midrash closes with an application of its conclusions. It explains that Moshe was taught by Hashem. Certainly, Hashem was the perfect pedagogue. He combined absolute mastery of the material He imparted with flawless presentation. Nonetheless, Hashem included in His presentation to Moshe pauses for contemplation. A human being cannot expect to achieve or even approach the perfection of Hashem’s instruction to Moshe. It follows that a mortal teacher must provide his students with adequate opportunity to consider and contemplate the material he is imparting.

4. The midrash’s model of effective learning
The midrash is communicating an important lesson in pedagogy. Effective learning requires that the student absorb and consider the material transmitted by the instructor. The midrash suggests that this outcome is best achieved by constructing each lesson as a series of smaller more easily mastered components. Each component should be presented. Students should be given the opportunity to master the component and then the next component should be added. In other words, the midrash is proposing a method that is very different from the traditional college or university lecture.

The outlook underlying the midrash’s lesson is reflected in an important halachah. Maimonides includes in his code – Mishne Torah – a chapter that outlines halachot – laws – related to pedagogy. He explains that the instructor should expect his student to be attentive. However, even attentive students cannot be expected to immediately master all material presented. The instructor must patiently answer the students’ questions. Furthermore, the students are required to seek understanding and unabashedly demand of the instructor explanation of any point requiring clarification.[8]

Maimonides’ underlying message is that the learning experience requires mastery. Mere transmittal of information not accompanied by the students’ consideration and basic understanding is not adequate and does not satisfy the requirement of Torah study. This does not mean that the teacher and students should plumb the depths of each issue considered. It means that understanding of the basic meaning and significance of the material is the sine qua non of authentic learning.

5. The Gaon’s view on weekly review of the Torah portion
The midrash has another interesting implication. Each week we are required to study the complete weekly Torah portion. The portion must be read twice in its original Hebrew and then reviewed a third time by studying a commentary. Preferably, this final review should be executed through reading the Aramaic translation and commentary of Unkelus. There is a dispute among the authorities regarding the specific process one is to employ. According to many authorities, the portion should be studied passage by passage. Each passage is read twice in Hebrew, then, reviewed a third time by reading the Unkelus rendering. This process is repeated passage by passage in succession until the entire portion for the week is completed.

Rabbaynu Eliyahu (The Gaon) of Vilna objected to this method. He suggested that each parasha or section should be treated as an integrated entity. The section is read twice in Hebrew, then, reviewed a third time by reading Unkelus’ rendering. The process is repeated parasha by parasha until the entire weekly portion is completed.[9]

The above midrash provides a possible basis for The Gaon’s position. According to the midrash, each parasha was revealed to Moshe accompanied by a pause during which he was required to contemplate its contents. This implies that each parasha constitutes an integrated lesson and Moshe was required to contemplate it as such. The Gaon’s method of reviewing the weekly portion preserves the integrity of each component parasha – section – as an integrated component of study.

1. Rav Shabbetai Bass, Siftai Chacahmim Sefer VaYikra 1:1.
2. Midrash Torat Kohanim 1:1.
3. The system of chapter and verse designation that is now in use is not derived from the Torah tradition. Instead, it was developed by church scholars and then gained general acceptance.
4. Midrash Torat Kohanim 1:1.
5. Rabbaynu Yaakov ben Shabbtai Chizkuni, Commentary on Rashi, Sefer VaYikra 1:1.
6. Rav Aharon ibn Chayyim, Korban Aharon Commentary of Midrash Torat Kohanim 1:1, note 8.
7. Midrash Torah Kohanim 1:1.
8. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah 4:4.
9. Rabbaynu Eliyahu of Vilna, Maaseh Rav 59.