The searing critic Ambrose Bierce once defined education as “that which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.” Yet, being a little less cynical, I would like to discuss Jewish education in terms of tachlis.
Rava in the Gemara in Brochot 17b defines Tachlis of wisdom as Teshuva, the transformation of personality and ma’asim tovim, good deeds. In contemporary terms, Rabbi Norman Lamm defined the goal of Jewish education as a commitment to Jewish action and a sense of Jewish identity.
Living life in a Jewish manner
Jewish educators must endeavor to first produce young men and women who will live their lives in a Jewish manner and participate fully in the affairs and concerns of the Jewish community both locally and abroad.
Secondly, and more importantly, to secure in young men and women an inner sense of identity as Jews. To secure the transformation of their personalities from something Jewishly unformed to something Jewishly informed - to be Jews inside and out.
Of course such a task is not easy to say the least. Historically, Jewish educators have had to confront challenges in all areas of life. It is these economic, social, cultural and political challenges that have often been the cause of discouragement and frustration to the tachlis that they aspire to instill in their students.
In 1970, Rabbi Lamm gave a lecture, which I have used as a basis for this speech, in which he described the three cardinal sins that ruin a Jewish educator. They are defeatism, pessimism and cynicism.
For a Jewish educator to succeed today, in a world where iPads, iPhones, iMacs, iBooks and all the other I’s are competing for our children’s attention, a Jewish educator has no choice but to commit his or her heart and mind, effort and faith to the proposition that they will succeed in reaching their students.
If we were all to sit down and write down our priorities for building a strong society, education would be on the top of the list and entertainment would be on the bottom. Yet, entertainers and athletes get all the accolades and financial gains and educators are pushed to the bottom rung.
Education attracts best and worst
As a result education attracts the best and worst - the most idealistic, committed individuals and those who fall into it as a job when they could not get the job of their choice.
One of the most destructive myths states: “He who can does, He who cannot, teaches.” For those teachers working late nights and racking their brains to impart knowledge and wisdom on our youth, this devastating cynicism not only insults them, and the teaching profession, it causes good potential educators to think twice about entering a field where they are desperately needed. Professor Dov Sadan of the Hebrew University is one of the top educators in the world on Hebrew and Yiddish literature. He has authored 40 major books and hundreds of articles and when asked about his dedication to his trade, he told the following story:
He was born in a small town in Galicia. Throughout his childhood his father kept reminding him of that when his mother was about to give birth to him the doctors presented her with a cruel choice: either the baby must die in order for her to live or if she wanted the baby to survive she would not make it. She chose to give the baby life and this baby was Dov. “So” his father would tell him “for the rest of your life you have to work not only for yourself but bear the responsibility as well for living for your mother and all the children she might have had if she chose to live instead of you.”
This is what being a Jewish educator means. It means having the responsibility for preserving and keeping alive the life work of millions of Jewish educators throughout the centuries. The lifetime that the Rambam put into his work to educate others about Torah is only meaningful if there are others who can read it and appreciate it. And the making of those “others” falls directly into the lap of the Jewish educator.
One advantage that today’s Jewish educator had over those in the past is that today people recognize education does not always have to be pragmatic.
In the last generation, education was all about jobs and making money. Today we recognize the importance of a well-rounded education. Students are willing to enter fields that are not necessarily lucrative from a monetary point of view but are rather are self-satisfying. This serves to answer those who question the value to learning bava metzia or those who say “I don’t want my child to be a Rabbi so why does he need to know all this stuff”. Education helps fulfill spiritual ambitions as well.
At this time of the year, society honors student graduates, but the people we should be honoring are those who made graduation possible. It is to those individuals whose dedication allows us to celebrate our children’s educational accomplishments.
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