The Secret Sauce of Inspiring Educators

Learning to Teach

When my peers and I were considering our career options, many of our teachers emphasized that while there are many fine reasons to enter Jewish education, studying Torah is not one of them. Education is an all-consuming avocation that leaves little time for Torah study beyond one's professional responsibilities. Having spent over a decade in Jewish education, I think they were on target. It's really difficult for educators to find time for learning and growth.

And for good reason. To the casual observer, the educator might seem to have plenty of time on his or her hands. But those on the inside know that this is far from true. Our time in the classroom is a mere fraction of the hours we dedicate to our classes and students. Preparation time, grading, meetings, grade calculation and entry, advisory periods, clubs and myriad other responsibilities consume our time.

One might imagine that the summers allow for plenty of time and relaxation. In fact, however, many educators take on additional jobs over the summer simply to make ends meet. In the Orthodox community, many work in summer camps. In any case, properly preparing curricula for next year's courses is labor-intensive and time-consuming. Add it all up and there isn't much time left for learning.

But in truth, although time is tight, little could be more important than the opportunity for educators to continue learning and growing. We entered this profession to inspire a new generation. We can hardly inspire others if we are not inspired ourselves.

That's why I was so proud that as part of the many learning opportunities we offer our faculty, yesterday's in-service offered the option for faculty to come together and learn. There was no pedagogic tool or educational approach we were trying to develop; it was simply an opportunity for some of our teachers to engage with ideas. I entitled the session "The Secret Sauce of Inspiring Educators." Our learning spoke directly to the subject of lifelong learning for teachers. Here's a synopsis of what we learned.

Two Parshiot of Shema

  1. The Torah mentions the obligation to teach one's son Torah in two contexts, once in Parshat Va'etchanan and once in Parshat Ekev. Both are recited in the daily prayers as part of the Shema, a central text of the morning and evening services. The obligation to teach Torah to one's children - understood by the rabbis as encompassing the mandate to teach one's students - appears prominently in both contexts. Why the repetition?

  2. What's more, as noted by Nachmanides (Devarim 11:18) there are a number of distinctions between the manner in which the obligation is presented in each context. In Va'etchanan, the term "Ve-shinantam le-vanecha," translated by JPS as "You shall impress them upon your children," is used. In Ekev, however, the Torah commands "Ve-limadtem otam et beneichem, you shall teach them to your children." Why the disparity in terminology?

  3. While in each instance the text goes on to describe the importance of pondering Torah matters while "lying in one's home and walking on the road," there is another important distinction: whereas in Va'etchanan it is the teacher who is urged to meditate upon Torah at all waking moments, in Ekev we are instructed to teach our children to do the same. What accounts for this discrepancy?

Two Types of Teaching

An examination of the larger context of each respective parsha suggests a profound insight: there are two distinct obligations in teaching Torah. In the first parsha, the obligation to study and teach is preceded by the command to love God. According to most if not all commentators, the obligation to teach one's child is an outgrowth of that wider charge. By contrast, the second section of Shema underscores not one's emotional connection to Torah, but the practical necessity to study and observe the commandments, lest the Jews be punished in the land of Kenaan. In Ekev, Torah study is a utilitarian act meant to ensure compliance of the mitzvot on the part of the present and future generation.

This distinction accounts for the differences we noted above. In the second case, it is most important that the student continue speaking words of Torah, for it is the procurement of knowledge and commitment that is the locus of the educational endeavor. In Va'etchanan, however, the emphasis is upon the teacher's relationship to the knowledge. Therefore, it is not the student who is urged to meditate day and night, but the educator.

This might also account for the shift in verbiage. In Ekev, which mandates the obligation to educate toward knowledge and commitment, teaching is described with the expected root, L-M-D. In Va'etchanan, though, the Torah chooses the less common root, Sh-N-N. According to the rabbis (Kiddushin 30a), this denotes a responsibility to become so intimately familiar with the Torah that the student can respond immediately to any question concerning one's learning.

Arguably, this requirement is not merely functional but essential to crafting a Torah personality. One who fully identifies with the Torah need not do any research to ascertain the law; it is second nature. Had learning been a mere functional process, what would be most important is the student's ability to identify the correct answer, whether sooner or later. But if Torah study is bound up with the love of God, it stands to reason that the Torah must permeate one's being to the extent that one is able to respond on the spot to queries in Jewish law.

Of Love and Learning

One question remains. We have suggested that in addition to an obligation to teach the "stuff" of Torah, there is also a requirement of teaching that flows from our love of God. What exactly is the nature of that relationship?

There are two possibilities. First, it is plausible that the process of learning deepens one's appreciation of the Almighty. Indeed, Rashi and Chizkuni, two classical commentators, adopt precisely this approach: by studying and teaching, we come to better appreciate God's wondrous ways. On this view, the teaching deepens our love for God and His Torah.

Second, we might see education as an outgrowth of our love of the material. We are so passionate about our relationship with Torah that we have no choice but to teach. As Rav Soloveitchik once suggested, the teacher is compared to a cup of wine that runs over. We are so suffused with our love of Torah that we cannot contain ourselves. We are emotionally compelled to share our own inspiration and understanding with our students.

A Virtuous Cycle

These alternatives are not only compatible, but can be viewed as comprising a virtuous cycle. Indeed, in his moving depiction of the obligation to love God, Maimonides seems to present both ideas side-by-side (Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, Positive Commandment 3). In short, by renewing ourselves we are more deeply inspired to teach. When teaching and cultivating our students' passion for the material and making them partners in the learning process, we gain an even deeper appreciation for what made us passionate about the subject matter in the first place. This leads us to teach yet again, and the cycle is perpetuated.

Given our time limitations, how are we to enact this virtuous cycle in our own lives? Above all, we must keep discovering opportunities for renewal. If we learn, our students will learn. The rest is commentary.