(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...yishuv b'mikra uv'mishnah, sitting in study of Scripture and Mishnah....
(Exodus 2:15) ...vayeishev al hab'er... (Moses fled from Pharaoh to Midian, where)...he sat by the well....
Some readings of this section of Avot split this quality into two or even three separate paths – by sitting in study, by the study of Scripture and (by the study of) Mishnah. I find the combined reading more compelling because it resonates with the long tradition of Yeshivah learning in our culture.
That word is hard to translate. Yeshivah means "sitting," but it no more captures what goes on in the hall of learning it describes than the word Amidah, meaning "standing," captures what happens in the devotional prayers.
In fact, yeshivah has more in common with shabbat, which comes from the same root. It is a place of rest and focus. It is a place that allows an individual, in community, to become immersed in the wholeness of Jewish learning and practice. Rabbi David Lieber, President Emeritus of the University of Judaism, calls such places "hothouse environments," where the seed of Jewish commitment can sink roots, grow and strengthen.
For the many of us who are not orthodox Jews, the word and the concept are redolent of a world we have consciously rejected. We picture a sea of young men in black clothes and beards sitting all day at long tables swaying back and forth over ancient texts. We picture the yeshivah as a breeding ground for withdrawal from society in general and intolerance for pluralism. We picture disdainful haredi rabbis using Torah as an excuse to exempt their able-bodied students from serving in the Israeli Defense Forces.
While some parts of those images may be true, they overlook spiritual and intellectual value of Torah study that is too often lost in our "enlightened" brands of Judaism. We think nothing of encouraging our children to follow equally consuming and elitist educations in medicine, law and academics because they have a practical value. Yet our prejudices cause us to shake our heads in disbelief and dismay when an adult child devotes a portion of his or her life to intensive learning and the preservation of our eternal values.
Yet, there is probably no more worthwhile time spent than plumbing the depths of "Scripture and Mishnah" and the other texts of our tradition. The metaphor for such a sabbatical is in this week's Torah portion. Moses, privileged and prominent, was faced with a crisis of conscience when he saw how distant he had become from his people. He fled his indulged life and wound up in Midian where vayeishev al hab'er, he sat beside the well. There, he discovered his own capacity for acts of kindness and commitment to justice as he drew from its depths. At precisely the moment he felt he had lost his way, the well provided the direction he needed.
Few of us know the experience of yeshivah learning. Until recently, you had to be young and/or (fairly) orthodox to attend. Over the past years, more liberal orthodox institutions have opened. More recently, programs like the University of Judaism's "Lishma" summer experience for twenty-somethings have opened. But nothing exceeds the opportunities at our own Conservative Yeshivah in Jerusalem. A number of our members have learned for days, weeks or years in the vibrant community on Agron Street (http://uscj.org/israelcenter/yeshiva/home/index.shtml). It combines instruction with the experience of practice, putting both ritual and ethics into action.
What is it like? Consider the words of David Andorsky, of Baltimore, MD, who spent a year at the Conservative Yeshivah after college and before starting at Harvard Medical School. "I took time off to fill the gap in my Jewish education. The Yeshiva gave me exactly the kind of approach to study that I had been looking for, combining academic rigor, intellectual honesty, and a conviction that the texts are sacred and are meant to bring us closer to God and to each other. I am confident that my Jewish knowledge will enable me to be both a skilled doctor and an educated leader in my community." That's the kind of doctor our society needs.
Sitting by that well of knowledge and drawing from its wisdom allows and individual to integrate the values and practices of Jewish life with the commitments and challenges of a general society – Israeli, American or otherwise.
One thing is certain: it demands patience. A discipline that reaches back thousands of years, through ten thousand scholars' interpretations, over millions of miles of wandering cannot be assimilated faster than a college degree or a new language. It demands yishuv, sitting still for a while, to draw from the well and to drink its refreshing waters.
Who among us has the years to do so? Perhaps no one. But it is worth taking the advice of Hillel (in Avot 2:5): Do not say, "When I have time, I will study;" perhaps you never will have the time. Moses sat alone by his well until he found community. Your community is closer at hand.
How can you experience yishuv b'mikra uv'mishnah? Make a place in your home or your office to sit and learn on a regular basis. (Try to dedicate the space so it will immediately put you in the frame of mind for study.) Find a partner who will meet with you to read and discuss sacred text. Enroll in an in-town class or overnight retreat. Spend a week or a month at the Conservative Yeshivah or another program of intensive learning. Organize a learning circle.