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Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Forty years ago I sat in the lobby of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem talking with a man we had met while walking on the street. Ezra was from Philadelphia, had made aliyah, and now lived and taught in the Holy City. We had encountered him a few times and he had acquired a special aura for us because he seemed to appear when least expected. That day the conversation turned to terrorist bombings and questions of responsibility. Ezra pointed toward the entry and commented, “See the doorman. If a bomb were secreted in those bags by the door and exploded, he would get all the blame for not being more attentive. But we are sitting here; we see the bags; we are observing everyone as they come and go. Why would we escape blame? We see as much as he does.”

I had never considered that I bore responsibility in that way. If it were my job, of course. But Ezra was correct; responsibility is not limited to those tasks or times for which we are payed. We are responsible for all that we see and encounter. That day Ezra became my teacher.

Who are your teachers? How did they earn that title? I do not grant that title easily. Not everyone who stands at the head of a classroom achieves that status. They are instructors or facilitators, but a teacher is something more. While we may find our teachers in the classroom, we are as likely to find them on the street, among our friends, or in random encounters.

Henry Adams wrote that a teacher “affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” His insight helps us understand why we are privileged to find only a few teachers in our lifetime. Teachers do more than inform us, they change us. The change may not be obvious. It may not actually occur when we are at that key moment of teaching, but may lie dormant for years. Nonetheless some piece of wisdom passes between us and moves us in powerful ways.

The Mishnah (B. Baba Metzia 33a) gets to a discussion of who qualifies as a teacher through a seemingly odd discussion. “If you should happen to have the opportunity to retrieve an object lost by your father at the same time that you could reclaim one lost by your teacher, whose property should you recover first.” The question strikes at a basic principle. After all, Torah clearly and repeatedly instructs us to honor both father and mother; a command that sits at the center of the Ten Commandments. The Torah does not speak of teachers or rabbis, and certainly does not present them in contrast to parents. So how does the Mishnah come to weigh the relative honor due to parents and teachers?

The mishnah's response contrasts the role played by father and teacher: his father (and mother!) brought him into this world, but his teacher, who taught him wisdom, brings him into the world to come. Our biological birth, they imply, is not the only birth we experience. We enter into worlds within worlds and may, therefore, be birthed multiple times in our life. Our biological genealogy describes only one aspect of our lives. In my book, The Hillel Narratives, I detail Hillel's spiritual genealogy, which includes Moses and Ezra and leads to Akiva and Judah HaNasi. While we know his spiritual genealogy in detail, we know little of his biological background. His teachers and spiritual descendants take precedence over his biological kin.

But what qualifies a person as a teacher? The Gemara offers this range of possibilities:
“His teacher means the one who taught him wisdom, but not the teacher who taught him Bible or Mishnah; these are the words of Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Yehudah says, it means the one from whom he has learned most of his wisdom. Rabbi Yose says, Even if he enlightened his eyes about only one Mishnah, this is his teacher.”

The differences between these three sages offers some interesting reflection on what it means to be a teacher.

Rabbi Meir focuses on the quality of the learning, regardless of the amount. Why are Bible and Mishnah teachers excluded? I suspect because they were recitation type disciplines. You chanted the Bible or repeated the Mishnah to memorize the chapters and verses, but these are not analytical tasks. They do not prepare you for the unpredictable experience of daily life. Wisdom, by contrast, lays a strong foundation on which one can build an holy and honorable life which withstand the unexpected.

Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Yose do not focus on the quality of the material taught, perhaps they have no disagreement with Rabbi Meir. They disagree on whether one can have more than one teacher at a time. Rabbi Yose argues that every person who teaches you even one Mishnah becomes your teacher. You may have one or dozens of teachers. Each may have brought you one step closer to the World to Come, without any one of them having brought you the entire distance. In my own experience I count among my teachers at least one who taught me the meaning of a single letter.

Rabbi Yehudah reserves the title teacher for that one individual who has taught you the majority of your wisdom. This is the position endorsed by the halakhah; that one teacher is known by the title of “Rav Muvhak.” But there is no assurance that you will have only one such rav in your lifetime. The teacher of your youth may be surpassed as you grow older by one who teaches you even greater insights and wisdom. At any given time you will, however, have only one rav, teacher.

Pirke Avot twice counsels one to make (Hebrew, aseh) a teacher for yourself (M. Avot 1:5 and 16). It is an odd choice of words. We are assigned teachers in classrooms, we hire teachers as tutors. We encounter wise people in a variety of settings. But how do we make a teacher for ourself? I believe that the sages of our passage offer possible answers to that puzzle. Rabbi Meir looks to the quality of the teaching, those life skills that give us wisdom and allow us to navigate a confusing world. Rabbi Yose urges us to acknowledge every person who has touched our soul and taught us in a way that impacted our life. And Rabbi Judah bids us to recognize that person who is our guiding light.

Consider those who have affected your life. Who are the people who have been your teachers? In what way have they taught you the intricacies of life? Have you let them know that their teaching, formal or not, has made a difference in your life and that you consider them a teacher? The Sages taught that our teachers deserve high honor. And your teachers deserve your thanks.

© Rabbi Louis Rieser 2010

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