Monday, May 21, 2012

Education in the Desert: Parashat Bamidbar

The Book of Numbers gets a bad rap.  We are prejudiced by its name, which makes us think about arithmetic and long, dry genealogies. However, the Hebrew name of the book, BaMidbar (in the desert) evokes other associations.  The book tells the story of a very large, extended family trying to find their way to redemption against all odds.  We fight, we cry, we protest, we appreciate brief respites on the long, arduous journey to the Land of Israel.  It's filled with drama, sex, violence, family dysfunction, and yes, some wisdom too.

Rashi brings forth the unique insight of our tradition through his interpretation of Numbers 3:1:*

1. These are the descendants of Moses and Aaron on the day that the Lord spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai.א. וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת אַהֲרֹן וּמֹשֶׁה בְּיוֹם דִּבֶּר יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֶת מֹשֶׁה בְּהַר סִינָי:
These are the descendants of Moses and Aaron: Yet only the sons of Aaron are mentioned. However, they are considered descendants of Moses because he taught them Torah. This teaches us that whoever teaches Torah to the son of his fellow man, Scripture regards it as if he had begotten him - [Sanh. 19b]ואלה תולדת אהרן ומשה: ואינו מזכיר אלא בני אהרן. ונקראו תולדות משה, לפי שלמדן תורה. מלמד שכל המלמד את בן חבירו תורה, מעלה עליו הכתוב כאלו ילדו:

The Jewish emphasis on the importance of education dates back thousands of years.  It is a value that trumps nearly all others because learning, in theory, serves as the inspiration for living a righteous life. We learn in Tractate Kiddushin, "Great is study for it leads to action." (40b)  Why do we invest so much of our resources into educating our children?  It is the first step to a more just, robust, and fulfilling world.

Therefore, it comes as little surprise that the Rabbis relished their relationships with their students to such a degree.  They considered their students to be as precious to them as their biological children.  While biological parents provide us with physical life, our teachers are the ones who make us human.  The inculcation of values, integrity, and faith are what make us "mensches."  For the rabbis of the past and the present, teaching is about more than the transmission of factual information.  When teachers bequeath ownership of the Torah to the next generation, they are passing on a road map that provides a path to decency, sensitivity, spiritual fortitude, honesty, and problem solving.  They shape not only the mind, but the heart as well.

I think that it is worth asking ourselves today whether this wisdom can apply to teachers of subjects other than Torah.  I believe that it can and that it should.  Through example, rebuke, and reinforcement of positive behavior, all teachers can ensure that our children will be mensches.  As Americans, however, we often feel uncomfortable with teachers playing the roles that are assumed to be parental.  There is an uneasiness with teachers playing a part in character development.  Some of us assert, I believe wrongly, that the instilling of virtue can be surgically detached from the transmission of other kinds of wisdom.

One of the many factors that has contributed to our financial and political crises is the failure of intelligent individuals to make ethical choices.  The leaders of both sectors were whiz-kids who dazzled with mathematical and legal fancywork, but who lacked the capacity to envision the wide ranging consequences of their choices.  Parents and educators both must recognize that one or two people cannot raise a child alone. Ethical thinking and behavior must be reinforced in the classroom, on the playground, on the court, and at the school dance.  We cannot and do not live bifurcated lives with clear delineations between the private and public, the ethical and the political.  These spheres have always been porous and intertwined.  The myth of their disjuncture serves no one in the long term, and robs the next generation of a future with the potential to be fair.

Let us all strive to serve as parents of all kinds.  Our tradition tells us how precious assuming this role can be, and our world needs your participation desperately.

* Text and translation provided by Todah Rabbah!