Rabbi David Walk
The famed behavioral psychologist and writer, BF Skinner, once said, 'Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.' Dr. Skinner understood that considering education to be the transferal of facts is a terrible mistake. It's just not true. A successful education can't be measured by test scores but by assessing the adult product of that education effort. As Jim Henson said (I imagine he used Kermit's voice), 'Kids don't remember what you teach them; they remember who you are.' We Jews B"H have long known the importance of education, but do we get it right? In any case, the basis for our love affair with learning is found in this week's Torah reading.
This declaration of the centrality of place for education is in the first paragraph of Shema. The paragraph begins, of course, 'Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, is one God (Devarim 6:4).' So, we start with a proclamation of belief in monotheism. But for us this belief is just the beginning. Next, we announce a three-part love for God, 'with all your heart, with all your life force, and with all your means (verse 5).' Our love for God encompasses our emotions, our physical well-being, and our resources. These mirror the three ways in which one person can harm another as expressed in the Ten Commandments (also in our parsha), Don't kill or harm someone physically, don't commit adultery or hurt another emotionally, and don't steal or damage another's assets. Instead we channel these resources in support of our relationship with our Maker. Then, we commit ourselves to Torah and its fulfillment by stating, 'And all these matters which I charge you with today must remain upon your heart (verse 6).' The next step brings us to our national obsession with education.
'And you shall teach them to your children and speak of them (verse 7).' Here's the heart of the matter, and everything revolves round the Hebrew word V"SHINANTAM. I translated it as 'teach', but not so fast. Here's Rashi on the topic: This is an expression of sharpness, meaning that these words should be sharply impressed in your mouth, so that if a person asks you something, you will not have to hesitate about it, but you will tell him immediately.
Rashi (and he bases his opinion on the Talmud, Kiddushin 30a) doesn't sound like the touchy feely pedagogic advice I was dispensing in my first paragraph. This sounds like drilling. That's a word I don't like whether we're discussing dentists or a Nolan Ryan fast ball. We could say that times have changed since Rashi died in 1104, but I'm loathe to take on Rashi without support. And, thank God, I have someone. The Iyun Tefila commentary (Sidur Otzar Hatefilot) explains that Rashi is referring to older students (because our students are also our children) who have mastered a topic. However, our small children must be taught in a kind and gentle manner. In this context, V"SHINANTAM doesn't mean 'sharpen'. It denotes repetition, which Dr. Robert Alter translates 'rehearse'.
Finally, this brings us to V"DIBARTA BAM, 'and you shall talk about them'. Our children know what excites us based upon our conversations. My kids know I love the Red Sox (presently in first place by 4 ½ games), but they also know I love Torah. And for the exact same reason. I get excited when I talk about them. The English theologian, William Temple wrote, 'The most influential of all educational values is the conversation in a child's home.' As parents and teachers, we mold our charges. On Yom Kippur we say that we are clay in the hands of the Divine Potter, and Joseph Addison said, 'What sculpture is to a block of marble, education is to the soul.' Amen. We lovingly sculpt the raw material.
The power of a parent or teacher to influence a child is beautifully described by the great Israeli expert on education, Dr. Chaim Ginot: I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element...It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether...a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming. Again, amen.
We have a special term for Jewish education. We call it CHINUCH. We know this term from Chanukah and the dedication of all the accoutrement of the Holy Temple. But it really means actual use of an object, which in our scenario means doing what we've studied. Jewish education must be a hands-on affair. We parents and educators must model certain behavior and encourage those patterns in our charges. The antithesis of this process is hypocrisy. When we tell the next generation 'do as I say, not as I do,' we've undermined the entire enterprise.
We want to guide, by example, the next generation onto a path where they can develop their own internal compass for choosing wisely throughout their lives. We must educate in a way which translates the word V"SHINANTAM, not as 'drill', but as 'persist'. We must teach and guide with the understanding that education is the soul of a society. The great metaphor for education is the lamp. We are the flames and they are candles. Light your lamps well and your community will never dwell in darkness.
When I retired from full time teaching last year, a few dear adult students gave me a needle point with a quote from Carol Buchner, 'They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how made them feel.' Let's make them feel good, and worthy, and proud.