(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...halomeid al m'nat la'asot..., learning in order to do...
Deuteronomy 24:22) V'zakharta ki eved hayyita b'eretz mitzrayim al kein anokhi m'tzav'kha la'asot et hadavar hazeh; Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore, I command you to do this thing.
As Jews, we rightfully pride ourselves on the emphasis we place on education. We have all see the self-congratulatory lists of our accomplishments in various realms of academia – literature, science, art, math and law, to name but a few. We have joked so much about our expectations for our children ("What did they name the twins?" "The doctor is Sarah and the lawyer is Joshua.") that people feel almost a sense of shame if they make an honest living by the sweat of their brows and the work of their hands.
We sometimes forget that our appellation "the people of the book" is not about just any book, but about The Book, that is, the Torah. While we should maintain a rightful pride in the intellectual accomplishments of the 30-year-old children of Israel who are emerging from graduate school and entering the full-time work force for the first time, it is Jewish education that we really value, and it is not dependent on a degree. In fact, the education of our children has always begun with their education in Torah.
I learned to read English by sounding out "see Spot run." But I learned to read Hebrew (at about the same time) by sounding out "Shabbat Shalom." The first two words I learned to read in my Jewish native tongue were laden with values and expectations.
What do you do with a phrase like "see Spot run?" Well, unless you have a dog whose name is Spot (the name was almost as unlikely as the dog in my family), it's a pretty useless phrase. True, it is a building block for later and greater things – I never would have read comic books, Vonnegut or Heschel without the peripatetic pup. But reading English was taught as an end in itself.
What do you do with a phrase like "Shabbat Shalom?" Of course, you say it to everyone you know – Mommy, Daddy, Grandma and Grandpa, Mr. Simon the grocer, Mr. Endler who owns the drug store. (Only Mr. Simon gave you a pretzel stick.) Maybe I learned it on a Sunday, when it had not practical application until six days later, but I was taught something not for its own sake alone, but in order to act on what I learned. The moment I learned the first kernel of knowledge, I was a practicing Jew.
Of course not all learning must have immediate practical application or there would be no algebra. But it is inherent in Torah-learning that it leads to doing. It is the case whether the study of Torah is book-learning or life-learning. The lesson I chose from this week's Torah portion (which is actually repeated a number of times in more or less the same language) seals the instruction to the Israelites to provide for the poor in a dignified way. Part of Torah – our history, our instruction – is that each of us was a slave in the land of Egypt. The commandment to care for the have-nots in society, and to enable them to maintain a sense of respect from themselves and others, is the immediate result of remembering/learning about that experience. The lesson is not just a reminder about personal history; it is value-laden and applicable to life.
The doctor who treats your stomachache or the lawyer who writes your will is just the person you need when you are sick or examining your estate (sometimes reversible cause and effect). The taxi driver, cashier, file clerk, mechanic, plumber, custodian or fry cook you encounter is just the person you need at that moment, too. While they may not have spent years training in academic settings, they have applied their experience to their talents, learning in order to do.
Each Jew, however, is obligated to learn Torah in a manner that leads to the performance of God's will. From the novice at Hebrew who learns to wish a peaceful Shabbat to the full-time rabbi who expects to wrestle with Talmudic dialectics and theological puzzles, Torah is truly acquired best when it has an action attached to it. The student of Torah who never leaves the study hall never gets past "see Spot run," and never really acquires Torah if it resides only within heart and mind.
What is a good way to be halomeid al m'nat la'asot? Rather than looking through Jewish texts for something you can translate into action, look around for something that cries out to be done: a person in need, a cause without a volunteer, a place in the world that needs repair. Investigate Jewish sources on how to respond and then, armed with intent and knowledge, put your Torah into action.