ח׳ בטבת ה׳תשע״ג (December 21, 2012)
He sent Judah ahead of him to Joseph, to direct him to Goshen. Genesis 46:28
Police in Connecticut formally identified on Sunday the shooter
who gunned down 20 young children and six adults at a primary school
as Adam Lanza, 20, and ruled his death a suicide —AFP
Education has come a long way since the days when it was only for the privileged and wealthy. Globally huge advances have been made to ensure equal access to education … although there is still a way to go in less developed societies. It is now only the poorest in society who still struggle to afford education, and hopefully that is improving day by day. Projects such as the $100 laptop have brought the internet and its wealth of knowledge to millions in the Third World. It seems feasible that within this decade everyone on the planet who wants an education will have access to one.
Judaism has always placed a great value on education, and not for nothing are we called the People of the Book. Wherever Jews have lived, and however difficult their financial situation, literacy was the top priority. Our Sages made compulsory the sending of teachers to every town and village, wherever Jewish children were to be found. Families would freeze in the bitter winters as money was used to pay the cheder teacher rather than to buy firewood. To encourage an appreciation for study and for the “sweetness” of the Torah young boys would be joyously carried by their fathers to cheder to begin studying the Aleph Bet, accompanied by singing, dancing and pockets full of sweets.
Where does this drive for education come from? Why do we place such a premium on our kids being able to read the aleph bet and say the Shema at such a tender age?
The answer of course lies in the words of the Shema itself: Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. G-d exhorts us to pass on His teachings to the next generation, and they in turn to the next …
If we look at the Torah reading this week we see a strong indication of the centrality of education stretching all the way back to the Patriarchs and the Twelve Tribes. The Torah relates that when Jacob returns to Egypt to be reunited with his long lost son Joseph, he first sends his son Yehudah on ahead. The Midrash explains what Yehuda’s mission was … to set up a house of study, to be ready when they arrived. Yaakov knew full well that for the Jewish nation to survive outside the Holy Land their lives needed to be centred around two things, prayer and study. Fortified by these, the Jew can weather the ravages of a sometimes terrifying world.
It is no wonder then, that teachers have traditionally been held in such high esteem. The saintly Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem (18thCentury) spent many years as a teacher’s assistant, and then as a cheder teacher. For him there was no loftier a role. That generation in Eastern Europe had been decimated by pogroms, and education had suffered. The loss of jobs and the desperate need to survive had taken many out of the education system, leading to a multitude of devout Jews being ignorant of their heritage, many unable even to read. The Baal Shem Tov set about rectifying that with love and compassion, teaching one letter at a time.
Society today sadly places teachers quite low on the social ladder. Even a high-achieving teacher gets very little recognition in our topsy-turvy world. A professional athlete or singer is paid more than a Prime Minister and gets admiration, acclaim and household recognition, yet those who are building the future of our youth are largely ignored. We underestimate them. A good teacher does not only impart information; a good teacher inculcates strong values and instils self-confidence, enabling those young people to be confident and successful when they enter the real world.
Nowhere was the value of a teacher more evident than last week, when a troubled young man went on a murdering rampage in an elementary school in Connecticut, murdering twenty-six people, twenty of them children aged six and seven. We cannot try to fathom what was going through his mind as he stole these precious souls from their loved ones, and our hearts break for every single one of them and their grieving families. However, the one glimmer of light in this pitch-black confusion has to be the courage and selflessness of the teachers and staff who risked and gave their lives to protect their students.
As the echoes of those gunshots reverberate in our ears let us pay tribute to those teachers and their sacrifice. Let us focus for a few moments on all those teachers around the world, who spend their working days educating in every sense of the word, not only by how they teach — but more importantly — by how they live.
May the memory of those slain be for a blessing, tehei zichram baruch. Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Zalman Lent
Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of Chabad of Ireland.