Devarim - 5780
Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22
George Bernard Shaw once quipped: “For those who can’t do, teach.” Since the moment he first uttered these words (if not earlier), many westerners have judged teachers as those who failed to succeed at their chosen professions – as if teaching itself was not a noble and meaningful pursuit.
While the debate rages across our nation about how (or if) to open schools for all ages, Rabbi Noah Farkas reminds us not only to think of the students, but of the teachers. He writes:
“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.”
The very word “Torah” means “teaching” and, as Jews, our lives are bound by Torah. In the first four books of Torah, we learn from the many people described on its pages, but according to tradition God is the author, the master teacher. The book of Deuteronomy, however, which we begin this week, is a series of speeches delivered by Moses in the last months of his life. Moses knew his life was about to end, and on the pages which follow, we read those lessons he most desperately wanted us to learn. He sought to pass on Torah to the next generation so that they would survive, and in turn pass the tradition on to their children. We are part of that continuing chain of learning, with each generation adding its own insights and wisdom to the corpus of Jewish knowledge.
Starting now, each week’s Torah portion will contain a great number of Moses’ essential teachings. This week, it seems only fitting to highlight the very first one. Moses begins by recounting how our journey began from Mount Sinai into the Wilderness, sharing these words from God to Israel:
“Long enough you have stayed at this mountain. Turn and journey onward …” [Deut. 1:6-7]
We have been stuck in place, literally, for the past several months, struggling with the pandemic, economic woes, and racial injustice. We are worried and facing a difficult journey ahead. However, we can cross over, just as the Israelites did thousands of years ago. There is a better place, a Promised Land which awaits, and if we want to get there, we need first to learn how – and that means listening to our teachers – those who know more than we, taking their lessons to heart, synthesizing what we learn, and caring for their wellbeing as well as our own.