The first time I examined a volume of Talmud, I was twelve years old. The late Rabbi Harold Bell, then Director of Connecticut Region USY, was spending Shabbat with my home congregation in Northampton, Massachusetts. He opened a Talmudic tome and showed a group of students the Aramaic text, how to identify the tractate and chapter, where to find the commentary of Rashi and Tosafot, and explained the Talmud’s characteristic pagination.

He then pointed out small notations, handwritten in pencil, which appeared on the page, asking us to guess what they might be. I theorized that the notes were his own, personal commentary on the Talmud. Flattered, the rabbi smiled broadly at my innocent perception. He wistfully expressed hope that someday he would have the scholarly wherewithal to compose such a commentary. “No,” he explained. “Those are translations of words I had to look up in the dictionary.” His humble confession was a revelation! Even learned rabbis have more to learn! Jewish study is a lifelong process, challenging even for the accomplished scholar! It was one of the most transformative moments in my early Jewish education.

Years later, it was my privilege to study together with Rabbi Bell at a Rabbinical Assembly convention. We were now colleagues…

But I remain his grateful student still.

(Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey and the National Chaplain of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting.)

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