Jewish Education – Career or Calling?

Editor’s note: we are pleased to share Morah Yehudis Fishman’s remarks at the Chidush luncheon, on the occasion of her being honored with the 2012 Grinspoon-Steinhardt award.

Morah Yehudis Fishman

First of all thank you all so much for coming today to the 5773 Chidush program and award; your presence here is not just honoring me but more importantly showing your appreciation for and devotion to Jewish education.

We are taught to live with the time which for a Jew means the current Torah portion. In today’s Torah section of ‘Vayeira’, we read about the angel’s promise made to the ‘first lady’ of Judaism, Sarah – ‘ka’et Chaya ulSarah bein’ – Next year when we will all be living, there will be a son to Sarah.’ No I am not sharing an ‘insider secret’ about my private life here.

Instead, my wish to Jewish Boulder is that next year ka’et Chaya we will be kvelling-jumping for joy-from a school where Jewish children will be learning Torah, saying prayers, and giving tzedaka on a daily basis, and not just once or twice a week. But you here today don’t have to wait for the future.  All of you who have some connection with a child- whether in years or with your own or a friend’s inner child- can influence him or her or yourself to do something Jewish on a daily basis. As Reb Zalman says, Judaism is not a Holiday Inn.

Today, the 11th of Cheshvan, is also Rochel Imeinu’s yahrzeit.  She has been waiting too many years for her children to return, not just to her land but to the ways and principles of the patriarchs and matriarchs. Before ‘Mameh Rochel’ left this world, her husband Yaakov wrestles with an angel, who manages to weaken Yerach Yaakov, Yaacov’s thigh which means his descendants who are called ‘Yotzei Yereicho’- the offspring of his thigh. The sages ask, why didn’t the angel wrestle with Avraham or Yitzchak? They answer because Yaakov represents Torah and to abandon Torah learning is to weaken the Jewish future. As Yehudah, Yaacov’s son, later says when Yosef wants to keep the youngest son, Binyamin in Egypt, ‘How can I go to my father, when the child is not with me?’ The rabbis explain this also in a broader sense: ‘How can we the adults go to our father in heaven if the youth are not with us?’

The greatest sages and leaders in Jewish history stressed the joy and responsibility of educating the young. The Baal Shem Tov, who perhaps more than any post Temple personality, revived Jewish life and connection, said that his happiest years were when he was a ‘Bahelfer’, an assistant kindergarten age teacher. He would gather young children from their homes and lead them to school singing and dancing. I think teachers need to love music not just because it is a doorway to the Jewish heart but also because the word Zamir means both music and trimming or pruning. What is the connection? A teacher is a gardener who does not create a seed or plant, but nurtures it and helps it to grow on its own terms, both by supplying its individual needs and protecting it from forces which could undermine its growth.

More accurately, a teacher teaches students to tend their own garden. People speak about ‘molding a child’, but, if I may be permitted a trans-language pun, I think the more accurate term is Molid, which is the Hebrew word for give birth. Even the best parent or teacher will not always be there; ultimately, the seedling needs to take responsibility for its own wellbeing. For a Jewish child, this means the teacher should provide not just the ‘what and how’ of learning, but the motivation to become a lifelong learner. And it all starts with Torah.

Is there anyone to whom Torah can’t be taught? No say the holy masters; not if we remember we are teaching hearts and souls and not just minds. Mental, emotional, or even developmental challenges, do not obliterate the pure essence of the soul, which is considered a ‘piece of the Divine.’ The mystics teach that when Yaakov bowed seven times to his angry brother Esav, he was actually removing a klipah, a covering or shell that was concealing the spark of holiness inherited from Yitzchak and Rivkah, but encrusted in coarseness. Last week Temple Grandin spoke so eloquently in Boulder about inclusion in faith communities of people with disabilities. If she with her autism could overcome so much and be such an inspiration even to those who others gave up on, can we Jews to whom education is our national top priority, give up on anyone?

What are some key ingredients to success in Jewish education? I believe they are: Love, empathy, and faith. Let’s take a closer look at all three.

Love: It was an ancient tradition that young children would begin learning Torah with the book that many adults nowadays consider the most abstruse part of Torah- the book of Leviticus, in Hebrew, Vayikrah, which also means calling out or calling forth. G-d calls to Moshe and speaks to him. Why do we need this introductory phrase of calling? What does this teach us beyond the content of the message itself? Rashi writes that Vayikrah is ‘Lashon Chibah,’ an expression of love. I once heard a rabbi make an unforgettable point: He said that even if you have the greatest teacher in the world, G-d, and the greatest student in the world, Moshe,  true and profound learning will not happen unless there is a prior communication and feeling of love between the teacher and student.

Empathy: feeling the special needs and strengths of each child. The Hebrew word for education is chinuch which is derived from the word for grace. Training meaning bringing out and actualizing the student’s hidden potential, a potential which is uniquely his or hers, the area that they are on fire with (chinuch-Chanukah) and shine in. The trials and challenges that teachers may have in life can help them empathize with students who have their own set of difficulties, but due perhaps to youth and inexperience, feel isolated and different. Empathy with them and their struggles can make all the difference in helping them not only to cope but to transcend and grow.

Faith: in Hebrew emunah, which also means training- in our students, ourselves, and yes, in a G-d who has been with us before the beginning of time, even though He may seem to play hide and seek with us far too much and too often. Above all, faith that the people who come into our lives are there for a reason- either to teach us, to learn from us or both. This faith does not come automatically; it must be nurtured and wrestled with. And it is not so bad once in a while to let our students know that we too struggle with faith and still find ways of connecting.

Rochel our matriarch represents all three: Her love for us, in choosing to be buried apart from the ancestral burial place, just to be the first one to hear her children finally returning from exile in the times of Mashiach. Then there is her empathy for her sister, Leah. Rochel gave up the possibility of becoming Yaacov’s beloved bride, just to save her sister Leah from being embarrassed under the wedding canopy.

Finally, her faith was so strong that she could win an argument with G-d to forgive his people, even for the most serious transgression of idolatry, by declaring that if she, Rochel, were willing to forgive her ‘rival,’ so should G-d!

And may I take a moment to add that Froma Fallik, A”H, the woman who till just a month ago, graced the Boulder community in such a profound way also modeled these traits. We will continue to be inspired from her example for many years to come.

Torah education has to be real for us if it is to be real to our students. There is a story of a child who came home with a stellar report card in all subjects but history. His father asked, ‘Why do you get such bad marks in history?’ His answer was immediate and direct:  ‘Because everything in it happened before I was born!’ Let us not teach Judaism as past history but as our eternally relevant and present life-blood and our song to the world.

Once, several years ago, we had a program in Boulder of true study of Torah lishmah, Torah for its own sake, called Conscious Learning Community. I will never forget, one time, there was a woman and her young daughter visiting from UK. At one point, we broke off in pairs, ‘Chevrutah style’, to study a Torah text. The little girl watched her mother pair up with someone. The mother looked anxiously at the girl who was sitting alone. Then suddenly the girl got up and started singing and dancing around the room, saying over and over-‘I am not alone; Hashem is my Chevrutah!’

Yes, it is beautiful for children to feel that G-d is their Chevrutah. And if you think G-d doesn’t rejoice from this think again: As the sages tell us, ‘the whole world stands on the breath of young children studying Torah.’ May the airwaves of Boulder resound with these holy voices, and may you the teachers, realize the priceless and extraordinary value of your service and calling.

About Morah Yehudis Fishman

I have been teaching Torah and Chassidic writings for over forty years to students of all ages and backgrounds, both on the East Coast and the Midwest. I have been a director of several Jewish organizations in Santa Fe and Colorado. My articles and poetry on a wide variety of Jewish topics have been printed in many publications, and also are available online.

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  1. Thank you Morah Yehudis for showing us that Torah is your calling. We are proud to have you in our midst as a wonderful role model!

  2. You are a joy to the world! What do you think of that trans religious compliment?