The Power Of Education [Parshat Vayigash By Rabbi Zalman Lent]

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He (Jacob) sent Judah ahead of him to Joseph, to direct him to Goshen. – Genesis 46:28

On Sunday morning, October 18th, 2009, Evandro João da Silva was mugged in Rio de Janeiro and fatally wounded. As he lay dying from gunshots, passing police officers robbed him of his possessions and left him on the cold concrete to die, alone. Just another day in a rough neighbourhood in Rio.

However this was different: da Silva was not just an individual and family man, he was also a music teacher and coordinator of Afroreggae, one of Rio de Janeiro’s largest non-profit organizations. Afroreggae was  founded in 1993 to promote Afro-Brazilian culture in one of the favelas of Rio’s North Zone. Youth from the community who were at risk of falling into the shady world of drugs and drug trafficking, were invited to take part in musical and sports activities to keep them occupied with healthy pastimes.

Afroreggae became very successful, spread to many other favelas in Rio, but was not very well known internationally, until the tragedy of da Silva’s murder. At an emotional funeral, the music students he had been teaching played two moving symphonies. Diego Frazão Torquato, only twelve years old, was photographed playing the violin with tears streaming down his face and with enormous loss and pain visible in his eyes. Da Silva had given these kids hope, skills, a mission in life, a chance to rise above the negative influences that surrounded them, and now he was gone … callously shot, robbed and left to die. The image of Diego made headlines across the globe, and brought attention to the wonderful work of his murdered teacher. Sadly Diego himself, a frail boy, passed away only a year later from leukaemia, but his image will never be forgotten.

The power of education and the educator has always been understood and promoted in Judaism. Judaism has long 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 the sending of teachers to every town and village compulsory, 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 children 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 Yaakov (Jacob) returns to Egypt to be reunited with his long lost son Yoseph, he sends another 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 (18th Century), scholar, Talmudist and kabbalist 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. Evandro João da Silva was not unique in his love and dedication to his students – tragically he is the one who made the news.

Rabbi Zalman Lent

(Photo credit:  Rogério Resende)

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