As the pandemic continues into the summer, inevitably all of us are thinking about the fall and what comes next. For those who have children at home the dread of online schooling, of children cooped up at home for another whole year, the lack of productivity while trying to manage kids, are all top of mind. There are almost seventy-five million children in America under the age of eighteen, according to Child Trends, a leading educational think tank. Basically, one in five Americans is a minor, and if you add their parents or guardians, the number in our nation that are currently utilizing our educational systems is enormous. The usual rush of energy around “going back to school” feels dreadful for so many of us, especially as states go back on lockdown, keeping most students and families home in the fall.
The other constituency we have to consider are teachers and educators. Given the above statistics, there seems to be no other group of professionals that interact with a greater population of Americans than teachers. Yet many cultures, especially Western culture, undervalue teaching. The famous quote from writer George Bernard Shaw in 1903 comes to mind, “For those who can’t do, teach.” Shaw sees teachers as failed at their “other” work. If you can’t cut it as a blacksmith – teach smithing. If you can’t cut it as a business person, teach business. It’s this attitude, along with a not so subtle misogyny, that says that teachers are “lesser-than” or are part of a “domestic” activity, that requires little investment, attention, and certainly respect.
However, there is no greater investment you can make than in education. How many successful people can read? A teacher did that. How many wealthy people can calculate balance sheets? A teacher did that. How many well-adjusted individuals know how to modulate between one task and another, sticking to deadlines, and playing well with others? Teachers did all of that. You are who you are because someone somewhere taught you how to be.
Teachers do all that.
While other cultures might valorize the king, the warrior, or the business tycoon, and while other religions might sanctify prayer and faith, ours is a culture that gives the greatest honor and respect to teachers. Judaism is known for many things, but perhaps its greatest gift is that it is a religion that centralizes and sanctifies education above anything else. We say prayers before and after we learn. Among the many things one can invest in, “The study of Torah outweighs them all.” (T.B. Shabbat 127a) Jewish law permits us to turn prayer spaces into study halls, but not the other way around. (T.B. Megilla 27a) According to the Talmud, if someone wants to establish a noisy business in your neighborhood, you can stop them, unless the noise is that of children learning. (T.B. Baba Batra 21b) When we pray for our children to grow into maturity, we pray for them to live a life of good deeds, a life with a loving partner, and a life of Torah learning.
There is no book in the Bible more dedicated to education than the one we begin this week. The Book of Deuteronomy, fifth and final book of the Torah, takes place at a single location and on a single day (except for the last few verses). Here we find a new generation of Israelites standing on the hills of Moab, only eleven days journey from Sinai, and yet a forty-year journey to this place of redemption. (Deut. 1:2-3) Moses, the miracle worker, the liberator, the adjudicator, the general, and the prophet, changes again into what Jews call him affectionately, Moshe Rabeinu, Moses our Teacher.
Unlike Shaw’s derision of education as a field for the failed, Judaism sees being a teacher as the quintessence of leadership. At the end of his long and storied life, long before Simon Sinek gave the now famous TED talk, Moses sat down with the people and in three teachings laid out not just “what” God wanted from them, but “why” being Jewish matters. “You have a history and a place in the world” (Deut. 1:8) You are in a relationship with a God that is One (Deut. 6:4). From your unjust past you shall build a more just future. (Deut. 24:17-18) Just to name a few.
At the heart of Deuteronomy is the relationship between teacher and student as a parent to a child and God to the world. The commandment to teach Torah to the next generation is mentioned in one way or another seventy-four times, more than any other time in the Bible. What we learn from Moses’ life is that teachers are the builders of our future; they are the most important resource we have. More than his transformation from slave to prince to prophet, it is Moses’ transformation into teacher that is his most enduring legacy. As we continue to stay at home, let us remember that education leads to transformation. Let us support our schools so that they can continue to foster the communities of learning. Let us honor the strength and sacrifices teachers make to educate anyone who wants to learn.