Knowledge is More Than What One Learns

When I was young, probably too young to understand, my father told me that knowledge is something that I own, and no one can take it away from me.  It took me decades, through life experience that I am about to tell you to really understand what he meant.

The The High School Ktziney Yam I attended was different that many others.  It was named after 23 Israeli sailors that died in action during WW2 (   Their legacy hovered around us. 

The curriculum was vast; we followed the requirements of the Ministry of Education for Matriculation in Science.  We also studied subjects related to marine professions: be it machinery, thermodynamics, shipbuilding, and navigation, to list a few.  To top it off – there were the practical experiences both military and naval: basic training, sailing, hands-on experience.  It was grueling.  It only was possible thanks to being a boarding school.  We studied for 45 hours a week, followed by homework, duties and other commitments that life away from home requires.  Yet, turning this learning to knowledge is a whole different matter.

I enrolled to the school shortly after my Bar-Mitzvah, making me the youngest in my cohort.  That posed a few challenges, both physical (fighting attempts to make me a punching bag for my classmates) and emotional.   

It took more than a year to mature emotionally, strengthen physically and gain respect within the rest of the cadets.  Gradually, I also did much better in the academic arena and started earning awards of Academic Excellence. 

I was the only cadet that was employed as an instructor of freshmen in the practical seamanship lessons.  At the last trimester, while preparing for the matriculation exams, management nominated me to lead all the cadets at school.  The final results of my Matriculation Exams showed that I came in the second best of my class.  Right after finishing school, I felt that I really knew a lot, I felt like I could master the world.

That feeling was even amplified during a voyage I took on board of a steam tanker as a cadet.  Two weeks into the voyage, I challenged the Chief Engineer regarding my assignments.  Claiming that I know the ship’s systems well enough to be discharged of cleaning chores, he tested me.  And I passed with flying colors, resulting with an exempt of cleaning assignments.  I found out that I knew so many things even better than the First Engineering Officer! That really boosted up my self-confidence to heights I never felt before.

Few months after returning from that voyage, I started my Mechanical Engineering studies at the Technion (at that time the Israeli equivalent to the MIT at Boston).  The first class, as well the second class of the semester were easy.  Piece of cake, I thought, boasting even further my “know-it-all” feeling.

Then came the third class of the semester, only one week after starting the academic year.  Well, I did understand each and every word that was spoken and written on the blackboard in the class.  But nothing more! I couldn’t make any sense of the combination of the words into sentences.  I started copying franticly everything of the boards, to review that material later at home.  Understanding the material given in a 50 minutes class, took me three hours at home!  It was a shock-treatment to my ego.  All of the sudden, I realized that I know nothing, nothing at all.

Tugging along and working hard, studying 18-20 hours every day for the next four I eventually graduated.  I was not the best, but certainly in the higher echelon, earning my degree “With Honors”.  In fact, that achievement was a humbling experience spiced with pride.  Certainly, much different from the feelings I had after graduating the Naval Officers’ School. 

In retrospect, I gained during this torturous study of Engineering two fundamental insights: 

The first is that I actually learned how to learn – regardless of the subject matter. The second, may sound like an oxymoron to the first one.  I realized that the more I learn, I actually find out how much I really do not know!

These two lessons motivate me even at present to learn something new every day; a day that I did not learn something is a wasted day.  I learn from everyone, regardless of one’s age, status, credentials or origin.  I learn more from those who I teach than from my own teachers.  My eyes are open, ears in attention, mind and heart ready to absorb and adopt the new.  And I am eternally grateful to all that give me the gift of learning.


And back to the very introduction to this post.  As a Rabbi, I feel compelled to add some rabbinic teaching to the message.  I quoted Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, saying (Makkot 10):  Much Torah have I studied from my teachers, have learned more from my colleagues, and I have learned most from my students.  What is the unique gift each of these different teachers provide and why the students’ is the most precious?

Learning from Teachers:

Let us start with the teachers, looking at Psalm 119:99:

I have gained wisdom from all my teachers

מִכָּל מְלַמְּדַי הִשְׂכַּלְתִּי

The specific Hebrew verb used here for studying stems from the root that denotes intellect, mind, reasoning.  It is the ability to understand something, in and by itself.  I’d dare saying that it is the parallel to the Sefira (emanation) called Ḥokhmah – translated into Wisdom.  That is what the teacher does: makes sure that you get the facts, comprehend the issue at hand with your intellectual brain.

Learning from Colleagues, friends:

For the second tier, the colleagues, let us move one verse down in the same Psalm:

From my elders I gained [intelligent] understanding.

מִזְּקֵנִים אֶתְבּוֹנָן

The Hebrew word here, uses the root that means intelligent wisdom and insight.  Following the same pattern as before, I’d suggest that it is parallel to the Sefira of Binah – translated into Understanding.  Intelligence is different from understanding, because it involves other facets of the case at hand: emotions, conclusions, insights.  Colleagues, friends (Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi were probably the elders, sitting with him in the Sanhedrin), provide these elements to our understanding, turning the intellect into intelligence.

Learning from Students:

I found that to teach something, I need to integrate my wisdom and the intelligence on the subject into knowledge.  Then, during the class, the interaction with the students, responding to their questions, takes place.  I try to ascertain that they will able, later, to turn it into intelligence.  This, in return, increases my own depth of knowledge and provides satisfaction and gratitude.

Finding Biblical substantiation for this insight was a little less obvious.  Here are two anchors that support my thought. 

The first comes from Ecclesiastes 12:9:

More than Koheleth was a Ḥakham (a wise sage), he taught Knowledge the people

וְיֹתֵר שֶׁהָיָה קֹהֶלֶת חָכָם עוֹד לִמַּד דַּעַת אֶת הָעָם

Teaching takes Knowledge – Da’at.  This is the third Sefira (according to the Lurianic Kabbalah) that integrates both the Right Axis (Ḥokhmah – Wisdom) and the Left Axis (Binah – Understanding, Intelligence).  The abovementioned three emanations are the “Upper Sefirot” that are part of the Heavenly expression of God, while the rest seven “Lower Sefirot” are the Earthly expression of God.

The second anchor is in Exodus 36:1. Moshe tells the people that B’tzal-el will be leading the work, instructing and guiding all the artisans, the artists and the laborers to do the work as HaShem commanded.  For that, God (my translation) “endowed [him] with Ḥokhmah [Wisdom] and T’vunah [same root as Binah – Understanding, Intelligence] to Da’at [knowledge – the ability to convey all that – the teach, instruct] the ability to perform expertly all the tasks connected with the service of the sanctuary “.

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