Near the beginning of Parshas Beha’aloscha (8:6), Hashem instructs Moshe to designate the Leviim for their service in the Mishkan: קַח אֶת־הַלְוִיִּם מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְטִהַרְתָּ אֹתָם “take the Leviim from among the Jewish People and purify them.” The choice of the verb “take” is surprising, as it is generally used in relation to an object (such as “take your staff” in Shmos 7:9), not to people. Therefore, Rashi interprets it to mean “take with words.” Moshe is to tell the Leviim: אַשְׁרֵיכֶם שֶׁתִּזְכּוּ לִהְיוֹת שַׁמָּשִׁים לַמָּקוֹם, “you are so fortunate to merit the opportunity to be Hashem’s attendants.” Interestingly, there are a number of times that the Torah uses this verb with respect to people, and Rashi consistently interprets it in this way (such as Vayikra 20:25 and Bamidbar 16:1). Clearly, people are moved by words, not by force.
We must further consider the need for the convincing of the Leviim. Why did Hashem anticipate their resistance to this special opportunity? If anything, we would have expected the need for an encouraging conversation with the Israelites who were excluded from this privilege. Apparently, the disdain for the klei kodesh fields of Jewish education and ritual work dates back to the dawn of our nationhood. Seemingly, given the choice, the Leviim might have opted to exchange this role for a piece of real estate in Israel, while looking for other ways to find religious meaning. Hashem, therefore, urges Moshe to speak to their hearts and realign their perspective: Appreciate the privilege to serve as Hashem’s assistants.
Much has been said about “The Great Teacher Shortage,” the title of a recent article in Jewish Action which exposes and analyzes why so many teachers are leaving the profession, and so few talented young teachers are joining. Certainly the causes for this phenomenon can be investigated and analyzed and there is no doubt that economics plays a large role in attracting and retaining talented educators. Much progress has been made in this regard; Much more is needed, and I do not have a solution for this. However, I do want to highlight another facet of the problem, where we can each make a real, immediate difference.
Perhaps the level of respect that our community places on these fields plays a role. Anyone in the field of education has had the experience of being asked “what do you do?” After responding, there is an “aha” reaction that often reveals the let-down. I have heard many active and aspiring educators talk about the inevitable disappointment when “breaking the news” to their parents of their career aspirations. Parents of educators who are asked what their children are doing similarly face the shame of revealing this secret.
If education is a premier value of our community, why does it lack the prestige that it deserves? Why is it often spoken of as “not a real job” for people who “do not even work in the summer”? Why is it socially acceptable to discuss the perceived flaws of our children’s educators at the Shabbos table? If our community would treat education professionals with respect (equal to other professions), perhaps more young adults will consider this career choice. Conversely, if we continue to degrade this profession, what should we expect?
I am grateful that my family has been extremely supportive and I have had the privilege to enjoy the many enriching opportunities that this career has offered me. However, I fear for the future of our community and I believe that something can and must change. The message that Rashi reads into the Torah resonates loudly in today’s time. Let us all take this message to heart and articulate to our children and communities how fortunate one is to choose the service of Hashem as one’s occupation. And let us demonstrate gratitude for the professionals who teach our children each day and support their growth.
Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz is the rabbi of Congregation Shaare Tefillah of Teaneck and teaches at the Ramaz Upper School where he serves as Talmud Department Chair and as Director of Judaic Studies and Religious Life.