There are many impediments to learning. Natural ability, raw I.Q. and God given talent notwithstanding, most obstacles to learning are self-imposed. One student may fail to put in the requisite time or effort necessary to achieve understanding. He or she may over estimate their academic skills and ability or under estimate the complexity of the subject under investigation. Another student may be impatient and wish to take shortcuts not realizing that in the acquisition of knowledge there are no shortcuts. Each step is vital. These and other barriers to learning stem from sources within our personal psychological makeup.
Embarrassment is another major hurdle to overcome for complete learning to take place. It stems from the fear of appearing stupid, the inability of a person to admit the worst human defect, ignorance. No one wants to display ignorance particularly in an area of supposed expertise. But even experts can be wrong. The truly great people, however, recognize their own intellectual limitations.
More commonly, we have come across the “know it all” at various times in our lives. Sometimes we can recognize this personality by the way an opinion is explained. When challenged their voice may rise or answer with an indignant tone. This emotional display is a reaction to hitting a soft spot in their supposed understanding. Most people react negatively when their ignorance is uncovered.
Everyone likes to be associated with knowledge and intelligence, even if only in an indirect way. People, even very far removed from science, loved to have their picture taken with Albert Einstein more than with famous actors, sports figures or world leaders. Even the famous wanted a picture with him. Deep down we all sense and realize clear thinking and understanding of reality are the greatest human possessions. To the modern world at large, Einstein served as the exemplar of human intellectual capacity.
But Albert Einstein admitted to making what he called, “the biggest mistake of his life.” It was an intellectual error. When he sought to align his scientific breakthrough in relativity with his notion of God to maintain the static state universe model, he altered his formula to force that agreement. When another mathematician pointed out his error, he admitted his mistake and readily accepted the true and alternative opinion, the expanding universe from a moment of creation.
In this week’s Torah reading, פרשת וארא [parashat va’era], shame and embarrassment prevent the recognition of the truth. Rather than meet these feelings head on, we are told the advisors of Pharaoh, “could not stand before Moshe because of the boils.” Here “standing” does not mean they could not physically stand up. The boils didn’t affect their bones. Rather, it means as the Ramban says, “They were ashamed and confounded and covered their heads since they were full of boils and could not rescue themselves.”
Had they the intellectual honesty of an Albert Einstein, they would have gone to Moshe. He would have shown them the mistake in their thinking. They held themselves superior to the rest of the Egyptians and their knowledge of how things work would provide them immunity to this plague. True they were afflicted by boils and faced the ridicule of the Egyptian populace but at the same time that was their opportunity to learn true ideas about God. Had they really been interested in the truth, rather than hide they would have fought their feelings of shame and embarrassment and appeared before Moshe. Pirkey Avot, Ethics of the Fathers teaches, “a shameful person cannot learn.” Embarrassment is a severe obstacle to learning.
Over and over throughout this פרשה the Torah tells us the fundamental purpose behind all of the plagues, “… So that you shall know that I am Hashem in the midst of the land … so that you shall know there is none like Me in all the world.” The knowledge and true ideas about God aren’t just for Jews. Rather, all mankind should and can know them. All that is needed is for mankind to shed the approach of Pharaoh’s advisors and embrace the approach and attitude of Albert Einstein.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan