July 17, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Example isn’t another way to teach; it is the only way to teach.—Albert Einstein

In previous essays laying out a comprehensive educational philosophy, we discussed that a learner, the scholar, sees learning opportunities everywhere; that the learner, by being a hero, uses the lens of Torah to filter that knowledge and use it appropriately; and that the learner should be a benefactor, by sharing, and not hoarding, knowledge.

And with these three designations we have completed the analysis of the pasuk (verse) originally quoted to answer the question of how schools can help parents give their children the skills to lead meaningful and purposeful lives.

As I wrote:

Hashem challenges people to contemplate a meaningful life. If one lives a life of purpose one can look at it with a sense of pride and accomplishment. Yirmiyahu, the prophet Jeremiah, asks us to examine what exactly we are being prideful of:

כֹּה אָמַר ה’, אַל-יִתְהַלֵּל חָכָם בְּחָכְמָתוֹ, וְאַל-יִתְהַלֵּל הַגִּבּוֹר, בִּגְבוּרָתוֹ; אַל-יִתְהַלֵּל עָשִׁיר, בְּעָשְׁרוֹ.

So said Hashem: Let not a wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not a rich man glory in his riches.

The scholar, hero and benefactor that were described in previous essays define the people exemplified by Ben Zoma when he expounded, in Pirkei Avot, on the above pasuk:

Who is the wise man? The one who learns from everyone.

Who is the warrior? The one who conquers his or her desires.

Who is the wealthy person? The one who is satisfied with his or her lot.

Strangely, though, Ben Zoma does not stop where the pasuk ends. Fitting into the general theme of Pirkei Avot, often translated as Ethics of Our Fathers, Ben Zoma adds a fourth character type to his analysis.

אֵיזֶהוּ מְכֻבָּד? הַמְכַבֵּד אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת Who is honored? The one who honors people.

While the structure of question and answer follows Ben Zoma’s previous statements, grammatically there is a significant difference. The verb מכובד is in passive form. Something being done to a person, not someone doing an action. Unlike the scarecrow in the “Wizard of Oz,” the scholar is wise by dint of his own efforts, not by receipt of a diploma from someone else. Similarly, the hero is brave because of his or her personal accomplishments, not by receiving a medal or ribbon.

An honored person, though, receives the status from others. A person can invite people to a banquet in his or her own honor, but if no one shows up the person is merely eating dinner alone. Honor is bestowed by others.

And who is the person who deserves to be singled out for honor?

President Calvin Coolidge wrote, “No person was ever honored for what he received. Honor has been the reward for what he gave.”

Ben Zoma goes a step further. A person is honored not for any simple action, rather it is for the way that person treats others. “Who is honored? The one who honors others.”

And how are our learners supposed to learn this lesson, if not by the way they see the adults around them behaving?

As I wrote elsewhere:

The COVID pandemic offered the world a rare opportunity to assess the entire educational system currently in place. Many stakeholders grappled with the very basic question of how to provide educational services when in-person schooling was not possible. The plethora of creative solutions show the ingenuity of the education community. What was missed for the most part, though, was the chance to look broadly not at the method of presentation but at the content being provided.

The United States broadly, and much more specifically the Modern Orthodox Jewish community, is experiencing a painful rupture in the fabric of society. Political and social upheavals have revealed deep chasms in our communities. Civil discourse and civic mindedness have dissolved. Positions that only charitably can be considered even dubiously halachically acceptable have become litmus tests for belonging to certain groups. Issues that have long united our community, such as the support of Israel, no longer have that power. On the contrary, how we support Israel has been made into a wedge issue, when it shouldn’t be, and it represents a dangerous development for Israel’s long-term security and for our communities here.

Our goal should not be to advocate for universal agreement on thorny issues. That is both impractical and dangerous. Rather, we need to (re)learn how to engage in civil disagreement, even when positions are diametrical opposites.

One could rightly argue that we already include such lessons in our schools. There is no shortage of educational units and other curricular materials that seek to extoll, impart and exhort the importance and practice of proper middot and social mores.

One could further argue that we have in fact succeeded in passing these vital lessons from generation to generation. We see amazing acts of kindness, care and concern.

Within our own communities.

But as our communities continue to shatter into smaller and smaller niches, the result is a reduction of society into a giant zero-sum game. Neither side in any disagreement can concede the right of the other to an opinion, let alone to accept parts of those opinions as reasonable. The “other” is caricatured, mocked, denigrated and loathed.

Public education in the United States was originally implemented with dual purposes: to supply an increasingly complex world with workers who could navigate those complexities and improve on them, and to create a shared, coherent civic view of society shared by the great melting pot of citizens and immigrants who shared this country. Religious schools had the added purpose of passing along sacred beliefs of their specific faith communities.

Over the decades we have witnessed varying degrees of success on all three fronts. However, we are now witnessing the dissolving of the fabric that has kept society resilient. The great task ahead of us is to reconstruct those connections beyond our small faction, to engage respectfully with those with whom we do not see eye to eye, and thereby strengthen the bonds that bind us together as a broad and diverse society.

Coupled with this task is a school’s obligation as partners of the parents who entrust their most cherished children to us in their mission to raise Torah knowledgeable, ethically grounded truth seekers.

We, parents and school, must be the example for our children.

For many years I saw Ben Zoma’s fourth category, the paragon, as an addendum to the pasuk I first quoted. I wondered why he chose to add it.

Sitting on the floor in shul this past Tisha B’Av, listening to the final two pesukim of the haftarah, which just happen to be the focus of this series of essays, and thinking about how our society is likely no more cohesive than the generation that experienced the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, the very obvious answer came to me.

The last pasuk of the haftarah starts: כִּי אִם-בְּזֹאת יִתְהַלֵּל הַמִּתְהַלֵּל, “Rather let one who seeks praise, glory in this…” Hashem says, Don’t take pride in wisdom, or might or wealth. Rather, seek glory in a different direction. (The exact nature of that direction is the subject of the last two essays of this series.)

Ben Zoma asserts that even one who is seeking glory and honor can not do it on his own. Just as the scholar learns from all others, the hero redirects his desires and the benefactor shares his wealth, the paragon receives honor by being an example to others by treating them respectfully, thus honoring them.

A man has honor if he holds himself to an ideal of conduct though it is inconvenient, unprofitable or dangerous to do so.—Walter Lippmann


Rabbi Eliyahu Teitz is the head of school of the Builder School (https://BuilderSchool.net), a co-ed Modern Orthodox high school in Emerson, NJ, that combines a classic Torah educational approach with an academically robust, applied careers focus for those who are college bound, as well as for those looking to enter the workforce directly after high school. His other articles can be found at www.DeanTorah.wordpress.com.

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