Learning – Two Modes
Every righteous Jew should be engaged in learning Torah to a greater or lesser degree throughout his life. But the learning process has two major modes, which are not equally accessible. One of these two modes depends upon an external source of knowledge (received wisdom). The other depends upon the knowledge that the person has already acquired, but he has extended it through study and reflection.
Historically, the external source of knowledge is a teacher, the one who has acquired knowledge and is willing to share it. There was a time when such transmission depended primarily upon the spoken word. Over the centuries, the transmission of knowledge has been vastly facilitated by means of the written word in script and printed form.
The internal source of knowledge is the knowledge that has already been acquired and exists within the mind. Upon reviewing this knowledge and thinking it through, the person realizes there are gaps in his knowledge and looks to fill them. He may do so by going back to his teacher and asking questions. He may also apply his mind to what he has already learned. After expending some degree of mental effort Hashem may grant him a spark of insight which casts a new light on his previous knowledge. He then realizes that the answer he is seeking already exists deeply within what he learned before. The revelation gives him a new insight that puts it all together.
The two modes of learning are clearly related. In effect, every qualified person has the potential to learn from internal or external knowledge, mixing elements of each mode to a greater or lesser degree. This depends on his abilities and his character. Essentially, all Torah knowledge originates as external knowledge, starting with the words spoken through Moshe Rabbeinu at Har Sinai. Throughout the generations, righteous scholars have extended this base of external knowledge with knowledge developed through the internal learning process.
טו = לֵב נָבוֹן יִקְנֶה דָּעַת וְאֹזֶן חֲכָמִים תְּבַקֶּשׁ דָּעַת
(15) The discerning heart acquires knowledge by inference and deduction,
and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge through communication.
The two parts of this proverb correspond to the two modes of learning, and they are structured so as to reveal characteristic aspects of each mode.
Both modes of learning are oriented to the same goal, which is defined as knowledge (דָּעַת). The two modes of learning are associated with corresponding organs of the body: the heart (לֵב) and the ear (אֹזֶן). The ear is a means of receiving external knowledge directly from a teacher, whereas the heart (or mind) is a means of storing knowledge and building upon to discover new knowledge.
The process of gaining knowledge from a teacher depends upon actively seeking a good teacher and actively listening to his words. All of these activities are conveyed by the powerful word “seeks” (תְּבַקֶּשׁ). It takes wise people (חֲכָמִים) to patiently listen to a teacher and absorb what he has to say.
The process of gaining knowledge from previously learned knowledge depends upon intensely focusing on each element of the knowledge in one’s mental inventory and studying it to find a critical insight that becomes new knowledge. This is similar to the process of a shopper who patiently investigates goods that are being offered for sale and ultimately discovers something that answers his particular need, such as when existing knowledge answers a question that has been bothering the student. This process of acquisition by purchase is described with the word “acquires” (יִקְנֶה). The person who makes this acquision is characterized by the word “understanding” (נָבוֹן), because he is building new knowledge from his understanding of previous knowledge.
(15) The discerning heart — לֵב נָבוֹן
acquires new knowledge — יִקְנֶה דָּעַת
from existing knowledge through inference and deduction.
And the ear of wise men — וְאֹזֶן חֲכָמִים
must seek knowledge — תְּבַקֶּשׁ דָּעַת
through communication from a teacher.
The discerning heart (לֵב נָבוֹן) is at a higher level than the wise men (חֲכָמִים) who depend on other wise men for their Daas. The לֵב נָבוֹן is able to acquire new Daas independently. (שבט מיהודה)
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Mishlei 18-15 (Learning) PDF version