8 February 2013
28 Shevat 5773
Mastery vs. Meaning
The other morning I was running with my friend, whom I affectionately call my running and spiritual chevruta (learning partner). I mentioned that I have taken on a practice of writing every morning. Having never kept a journal, I am finding it meaningful to begin the day alone with my thoughts, a pen, and paper (yes, I am actually writing by hand!). When I shared that I find this to be a powerful way to connect with my inner life, my friend, an observant Jew, responded, “For me, that happens during prayer.”
I said to my friend, “You must be on a higher spiritual level than I am because, sadly, even when I am focused on the meaning of the words I am saying, prayer for me is often more about the words themselves than exploring my inner life.” At which point, he said something that at first I thought was just witty and funny but now I realize points to something profound. He said, “No, I’m not on a higher spiritual level. I just can’t understand Hebrew!” The traditional Jewish prayer service contains pages and pages of prayers and recitations in Hebrew. Those of us, me included, who are comfortable with the Hebrew, often say all the words in Hebrew. For those who cannot, many either say the English or go much more slowly, saying only some of the prayers in order to take their time to comprehend the Hebrew. My friend is in the latter category.
It seems ironic that my friend experiences the spiritual power of Jewish prayer precisely because his knowledge and ability to comprehend the Hebrew language is relatively novice. On the other hand, I have a degree of “mastery” over the prayers in their original language, yet I struggle with prayer as a conduit for my personal growth and exploration.
Perhaps, this reflects just my own, personal, spiritual challenge. Or, is it possible that this raises larger questions about mastery in religion and, more broadly, about learning and life?
We have all experienced the excitement of beginning to learn something for the first time. There is newness, naiveté, and the thrill of learning so much so fast. You leave each encounter with the subject matter with new questions, insights, and excitement about how much more you have to learn. We long for greater mastery because, in theory, the greater depth and knowledge we have of something, the greater should be our ability to access the depth of its meaning and relevance for our lives.
Yet, somehow gaining greater mastery over skills and knowledge can work at odds with finding personal meaning in a subject or discipline. One reason is that learning and mastery become more about competition and power than meaning or responsibility. For example, in school students focus on who will finish an assignment first or who will get the best grade. In prayer, we focus on how quickly and how fluently we can recite the words. We master the prayer book and then find ourselves looking around the synagogue to see who has finished their prayers first, who seems to know best what they are doing, who are the other “masters” and who are the “novices.”
And then there is my friend, the self-proclaimed “novice.” Why is it that the words he barely understands actually motivate him to look not at others but rather within himself?
Are there areas of learning or life in which you have experienced the relationship between mastery and meaning?
Rabbi Marc Baker