Hitlamdut: How to Never Stop Learning

I’ve always been a natural book-learner. I loved books so much as a kid that grounding me wasn’t really punishment – I would happily spend the time just reading on my bed. Once, my parents took away my entire adolescent library for a week. I don’t remember my crime, but that punishment horrified me so much I can still recall the awful feeling of being truly grounded, unable to soar away in the imaginative worlds of fiction.

We all learn in different ways. Whether it’s books, observation, trial-and-error, or something else, the mussar trait of hitlamdut encourages us to examine and take ownership over how we learn. Hitlamdut literally means “self-learning,” or the “ongoing process of learning how to learn.”

So how do we learn? One way to think about this comes from David Kolb, a modern educational theorist. He describes a cycle of experiential learning.

Kolb’s Cycle of Experiential Learning

  • First, you experience something directly. This is the raw moment of doing, let’s say playing basketball.
  • Second, you reflect on the experience – you notice that whenever you shoot for the basket, you miss.
  • Third, you conceptualize based on your reflection; in this case, you speculate that perhaps you’re not aiming high enough. The concept (aim) develops when you reflect (I missed!) on the experience of shooting the ball.
  • Fourth, you experiment with doing differently, which brings you back into experience, and hopefully a little closer to hearing that swishing sound of success.

And God said to Moses: You speak [about Shabbat]… Not through a messenger and not by an agent.

The midrash from Mekhilta on Exodus 31:12 reveals a similar dialectic between experience and conceptualization. Imagine you want to learn about Shabbat.

The midrash suggests you shouldn’t rely on messengers with regard to Shabbat. (So you should experience directly.)

But Moses is still our teacher. (Someone is helping us to learn a concept.)

But when you read the Torah you can directly access what God tells Moses. (And therefore experience directly.)

But we aren’t primed to look for directness without the midrash as our teacher. (The midrash ironically acts as a messenger in teaching us the concept of directness.)

Ultimately, the layers here reveal an infinite dialectic between concept and experience.

The sages say, “Make for yourself a teacher” (Pirkei Avot 1:6). Make for yourself. Take responsibility for this process of experiential education. Know when to find teachers and seek out concepts and when to let the moment teach you directly. This is hitlamdut, the quality of being a learner. Create an inner ability to learn and you will find the world full of teachers.

Hitlamdut Practice

Each Shabbat, focus on one component of the experiential learning cycle.
Experience Shabbat as directly as possible (you’ll have to decide what this really means).
Reflect on how you experience Shabbat.
Conceptualize – study some texts about Shabbat, perhaps Abraham Joshua Heschel’s classic, The Sabbath.
Experiment with Shabbat – what can you do differently to experience Shabbat as sacred time, as family time, as restful time?