Are We Good Students?

One of the signs of successful education is “transfer of learning”. In short, “transfer of learning” is what happens when a student brings something they’ve learned in the past into current learning or into real world application. The composers of Jewish liturgy understood this and so they utilized phrases from the Tanakh that contained vital ideas and placed them into daily prayers in the hopes that through their recitation, a study text might be transformed from being knowledge in our head, to values that we practice in our lives.

One such phrase comes from the section of Isaiah which is read this week as the haftarah (weekly reading from the prophets). There we read “I will return your judges as before, your counselors as in the beginning” (Isaiah 1:26). The larger context of this passage reveals why these new judges were needed and what forgotten values they represented. By looking just a few verses before we read, “learn to do good, seek out justice; aid those who have been wronged; uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow” (ibid. 1:17). Thus, Isaiah portrays God as demanding that the people commit themselves to the protection of the vulnerable. In support of this work, God also promises to restore judges and counselors who are also committed to this vision.

It is this phrase about judges and counselors which is then transposed into the key of prayer by the Talmudic sages through it’s insertion into the weekday ‘amidah. In it we ask God, “return our judges as before, our counselors as in the beginning”. There are two educational moves which occur with the presence of this line in our prayers. The first, is that it asks us to remember the larger context. In other words, if we are asking God to restore these leaders, we must recall that we have been asked to commit ourselves to the protection of the vulnerable. Secondly, it pushes us to reflect and ask ourselves if we have done enough of our part to justify asking for God’s. In the words of Rabbi David de Sola Pool, “our right to pray for any blessing is in direct relation to the measure in which we make ourselves worthy of it”.

This leaves us with a series of questions. Are we good students? In reading these passages of prayer, do we find we have transferred this learning into new situations, decisions and daily living? Do we find we have a growing awareness of those who are vulnerable? Do we find ourselves compelled to do something to safeguard and uplift them and follow through? As students of justice our learning in this area is never done and so we read this passage every year, and its liturgical rendering everyday. Our sages left us a carefully crafted education through our tradition. Let us strive to be the students they have called us to be.

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