I get hung up about language sometimes. My kids were never permitted to say “pesgetti” or “libary”. I have to catch myself to avoid correcting people when they say “General consensus” or claim that they feel “nauseous”.
So when I really started to get involved in my Judaism I was bewildered and somewhat annoyed by the use of the word “learn”.
I was told that a friend and his chevruta (study partner) “learned together” every Thursday. I was frequently asked “What are you learning right now?” or “Do you want to learn this with me?”
It finally came to a head and (as with so many things) I vented my spleen to my Rabbi. “What does that even MEAN?!?” I demanded.
I continued on my tirade, pointing out that the English language had so many wonderful words relating to education: study, teach, memorize, analyze, cross-reference, familiarize, skim, read,… and yes, learn. Why was one word used to the exclusion of all others?
The answer encapsulated one of those moments so common (for me, at least) as I grow in my understanding of Jewish life. I was simultaneously calmed, enlightened, and left with the feeling of “well why didn’t someone say that in the FIRST place?”.
First, what we’re talking about is a mitzvah – a commandment: “lilmod u’lelamed” — to learn and to teach.
In Hebrew, “To learn” is “Lilmod”
And “To teach” is “Lilamed”
It’s the same word.
It makes sense that my grandfather’s generation – coming to America speaking French, Spanish, and Hebrew, but not English – would look for the word that matched what they were doing. Which turned about to be fantastically efficient – just a single word – “To Learn”.
Looking past the linguistics, I think there is a lesson we can take with us this Elul: That the act of teaching someone requires that we be active, enthusiastic learners – that we are open to the possibility and challenge of learning new things ourselves – before we can become effective teachers. And that nobody is “just” a student. No matter the difference in age or experience, there are things we can, and should, be teaching our teachers.