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March 23, 2006

The Fast and the Slow
By Greg Schindler

This D’var Torah is dedicated in honor of the Bar Mitzvah of my son, Gabriel Jonah.

The story is told in the Talmud of a man who came to the sage Hillel
and requested, ‘Teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.’
(Shabbos 31a) The man had previously made this request of the sage
Shammai, who chased him away. But Hillel did not chase the man away.
Rather, he said to him, ‘That which you hate, do not do to others. The
rest is commentary.’ While you may be familiar with the story up to
here, there is one more line to the tale. Hillel then adds: ‘Now go and

In this simple account lies a great truth of learning. Learning comes in two ways: The ‘Fast’ and the ‘Slow.’

The ‘Fast’ is the flash of insight where’out of the blue’an idea
takes form in our mind. This is Hillel’s reduction of the entire Torah
to a single proverb. We also see the ‘Fast’ in this week’s Torah
portion, where Moses’up to now an Egyptian prince’suddenly feels a
kinship with the enslaved Hebrews and kills an Egyptian overseer.
(Exod. 2:11’12) Indeed, the epitome of the ‘Fast’ method is Moses’
vision at the Burning Bush where, in the everyday act of tending his
sheep, Moses is instantly face to face with the Divine’and his life
will never be the same. (Exod. 3:2)

We also see the ‘Fast’ in this week’s Haftarah, where the prophet
Isaiah speaks of a time when a ‘great shofar will be sounded’ and those
who were ‘lost in Assyria’ and ‘dispersed in the land of Egypt’ will
‘worship the Lord in the holy mountain at Jerusalem.’ (Isaiah 27:13) It
all sounds quite sudden.

But there’s a problem with the ‘Fast’ manner of learning: It doesn’t
last. We cannot maintain the visionary state for very long. Flashes of
insight fade’unless we do something about them.

This ‘doing’ is the second way of learning: The ‘Slow.’ The long,
hard work that turns revelation into redemption. This is the
continuation of Hillel’s instruction to the ‘Torah-on-one-foot’ guy:
‘Now go and study!’

In the final verses of this week’s Torah portion’even before the
first plague’Moses is frustrated by the lack of a speedy resolution.
When the people bitterly complain that things have only gotten worse
since he showed up, Moses protests to God: ‘Since I came to Pharaoh to
speak in Your Name, he [Pharaoh] has dealt ill with this people; and
You have not delivered Your people at all.’ (Gen. 5:22’23) Little does
Moses know that change will come slowly: it will take ten plagues
before Pharaoh relents, and another forty years traversing the desert
before the People will enter the Land. A Land that Moses,
unfortunately, will never enter.

In this week’s Haftarah, bracketing the stirring vision of the day
when ‘the great shofar will be sounded’ to gather in the exiles, we
have descriptions of a much more deliberate process. We read of ‘Days
to come when Jacob will take root, Israel will blossom and bud; and the
face of the world will be filled with fruit.’ (Isaiah 27:6) As any
gardener knows, plants grow slowly and fruit-bearing plants may take
years to flourish. Further, we are told that the children of Israel
will be gathered ‘one by one’ (Isaiah 27:12), a verse that speaks of a
painstaking process. Indeed, this week’s Haftorah contains the
definitive description of the ‘Slow’ manner of learning, as Isaiah
explains how the people will be taught:

Tzav v’tzav, tzav v’tzav.
Kav l’kav, kav l’kav.

Precept by precept, precept by precept.
Line by line, line by line. (Isaiah 28:9’10)

Often, the difficulties we face in the ‘Slow’ method of learning are
quite daunting. For Moses to remain a shepherd in the Land of Midian
would have been simple; to return to Egypt was potentially life
threatening. (Exod. 4:19) Moses does not speak well (Exod. 4:10), yet
he is called upon to be the spokesman before Pharaoh (Exod. 3:10); he
eventually will become the People’s intercessor with God and the
teacher of an entire nation. How does he achieve this transformation? Tzav v’tzav. Kav l’kav.

Before he was Moshe Rabbeinu’ ‘Moses our Teacher”Moses was a humble
shepherd who relied on his brother Aaron to speak to the People (Exod.
4:30) and to address Pharaoh (Exod. 7:2). Moses’ evolution as a leader
is evidenced in the Torah’s description of the Ten Plagues:

  • Aaron brings the first three plagues’Exod. 7:19 (blood), 8:6 (frogs), 8:16 (lice);
  • God brings the fourth and fifth plagues’Exod. 8:24 (flies), 9:6 (cattle disease);
  • Moses and Aaron, together, bring the sixth plague’Exod. 9:8 (boils); and
  • Moses, alone, brings the next three plagues’Exod. 9:22 (hail), 10:12 (locusts), 10:21 (darkness).1

After the ninth plague, the Torah tells us that Moses had grown in
stature to the point where, ‘The man Moses was very great in the land
of Egypt.’ (Exod. 11:3)

Like Moses, we must take the flash of insight’the vision at the
Burning Bush’and then do the hard work necessary to make it real:

Tzav v’tzav. Kav l’kav.
Precept by precept. Line by line.

Now, go and study!

1For those who are counting, God brings the final plague. (Exod. 12:29)