AJ Jacobs

To Stand or Sit

“But as for you, stand here with Me
— Deuteronomy 5:27

There is an argument taking place among writers right now. Is it better ergonomically to write while sitting or to write while standing? Hemingway used to write while standing as did Nabakov. We've see an emergence of the writing desk and even the treadmill desk for those who can really multi-task. A. J. Jacobs devotes a section in his book Drop Dead Healthy to this question, saying "The desk is where most of the Crimes of Excessive Sedentary Behavior occur." Since he wrote this book to experiment with ways to achieve optimal health, he piled 3 cardboard boxes on top of each other on his desk and started to answer e-mails.

"It didn't go badly," he writes. "I shifted and rocked a lot. I kind of looked like an Orthodox Jew praying at the Western Wall, but with a MacBook instead of a Torah." His breakthrough came when he followed the advice of Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic and rigged a desk on his treadmill, what some have called deskercise and others have termed iPlodding. He wanted to write the whole book on this desk and even includes a picture of his invention. He claims it helps him focus.

Because our sedentary behavior cause aches and pains, scholars of old also took on this question. Is it better to sit or stand while learning Torah?

In the Talmud [BT Megilla 21a], the beautiful imperative above - to stand with Me - was understood as an ancient way we partnered with God. "The phrase 'with Me' indicates, as it were, even the Holy One, Blessed be He, was standing [at Mount Sinai]." We never think of God as standing with us at Sinai but as giving us something. The idea that God was not only giving us teachings but also standing beside us to support the way that we received them has great value in helping us understand the nature of transmission.

The Talmud then extrapolates, as it so often does. If God stood with us at Sinai to teach us, then teachers must also stand by their students when teaching them: "From where is it derived that the teacher should not sit on a couch and teach his disciple while he is sitting on the ground? "But as for you, stand here with Me." To this, one sage added, "From the days of Moses until the time of Rabban Gamliel [grandson of Hillel], they would study Torah while standing." Standing was a way of honoring Torah and an act akin to receiving the Torah at Sinai again. It was also a way to honor the teacher/disciple relationship. If we want people to really learn, we go to where they are to teach them. Why did this practice change, the Talmud ponders? "When Rabban Gamliel died, weakness descended to the world, and they would study Torah while sitting." 

Sitting while teaching was a sign of weakness. The sages debated the point. In Deuteronomy, one verse says, "And I sat on the mount" while another says, "And I stood on the mount" (Deuteronomy 10:10). This is interpreted by the sage Rav to mean that "Moses would stand and learn Torah from God and sit and review what he learned." Rabbi Hanina said, "Moses was not sitting or standing but bowing." Rabbi Yohanan believed this means that Moses simply stayed in one place when he taught where Rava said, "Moses studied easy material while standing and difficult material while sitting."

We have constructed very set spaces for learning that may not optimize our study. Our imaginations are often locked into the classrooms of our childhoods: desks evenly spaced apart facing the teacher's desk in neat rows. Very little about real learning, the integration of knowledge and wisdom develop this way. The Talmud understood that when we learn we need movement.

The Talmudic passage also made me think of the expression "to stand with Israel." We mean that we are together in unity and support. But I thought of Rava's contribution to this debate. Moses studied easy material while standing and difficult material while sitting. It may be easier to stand with Israel than to sit with Israel, to consider the complex and nuanced ways we can support our homeland in crisis. Slogans, reverse racism, simple political bantering are ways that people tend to protest - to stand with Israel - but real, long-term solutions can never be reduced to a simple formula. They always involve loss, anguish, compromise, patience, diplomacy and resilience.

It's time to stand with Israel and to sit with Israel, too.

Shabbat Shalom