Angels, the Midrash teaches, attended our nation’s first educational experience at Sinai bearing gifts: two crowns. One was the crown of action, awarded to us for our commitment to do everything G-d asked of us. The second was the crown of understanding, bestowed in recognition of our promise to commit our minds to the comprehension of the Torah. But somewhere along the way there emerged the dilemma that has accompanied us ever since: How is one to wear two crowns? As teachers, how can we affix them both on our students?
So, over the millennia, the pendulum of Jewish education has swung irresolutely between a fixation on rote action and an obsession with abstract contemplation—the how to be a Jew, and the why be a Jew. Either the hands and feet of observance have been fed, to the exclusion of the mind; or the head and heart have been nourished, leaving the muscles of action to atrophy with neglect. We struggle to inculcate in our students the lost art of melding the crowns of doing and understanding into one circular band, where each completes and betters the other.
The educational formula that we ought to reclaim is that first pledge our people made at the foot of the mountain: “We will do, and we will listen.” The intellectual odyssey we undertake must depart from the shores of action. Before we “listen” to the timeless, impactful teachings of our heritage, we must “do” the equally timeless demands upon which those lessons are built. Our ancestors understood that action animates the soul, and it moves us in ways that pure thought cannot. The crackle of the Shabbat candle, the clang of a donated coin, and the soft leather of a tefillin strap on the arm fill us with wonder.
That wonder is what pulls us to the study hall. When the hunger for enlightenment is fueled by experience, there is direction and purpose in the pursuit of knowledge. Our learning becomes passionate, alive. Without the magic of hands and feet, learning can descend to the lifelessness of Gradgrind’s facts. If we “plant nothing else, and root out everything else,” then an impoverished knowledge will grow. “We will do” is the foundation for “we will listen.”
But a spirited mind enriches our traditional observances too. Action alone is unsatisfied without the companionship of insight and understanding. Lit with the fires of intellect, our observance grows radiant as well.
During my formative years in the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s court, the soles of our feet pounded the Manhattan pavement in search of Jews to do mitzvot with—per the Rebbe’s instructions. But he urged us to immediately quench the thirst that action creates, with Torah study. The Rebbe reminded us that when study envelopes us, it betters every part of a person.
This is the continuum of the two crowns becoming one. Action inspires thought, which feeds action, until hands, feet, heart, and head are all immersed in the pursuit of the divine.
Perhaps we have, at times, abdicated the angel’s gifts. Let us reclaim them both for our students.