Rabbi Weinreb's Parsha Column, Vayelech
"One Verse, Many Lessons"
We met in a Jerusalem café, and I must admit that, although they recognized me, I neither recognized nor even recalled any of them. That is, until they began to reminisce about their common experience as students of mine. Suddenly, the many intervening years evaporated, and I felt as if I was back in that classroom of so long ago.
Let me tell you about the class, which was no ordinary one. My wife and I were then living in a suburb of Washington, DC, where I was pursuing postgraduate studies at the Washington School of Psychiatry. To help make ends meet, I taught adult education classes for the local Jewish Federation.
The director of the program informed me that, although the prospective students had high levels of secular education, their Jewish educations ranged from considerable to negligible. It would be my task to create a curriculum which would be challenging intellectually, but which would also meet the needs of a religiously very diverse group.
I agreed to teach the class and created a course entitled "The Very Last Mitzvah in the Torah." About ten or twelve adults signed up for the class—mostly men, as I recall, but with two or three women as well. Until the meeting that I am about to describe, the only feedback I was given came in the form of a note from the program director that the student evaluations of my teaching were satisfactory, and that I was requested to teach another course the next semester.
More than four decades later, I found myself sitting with four members of that group and learning that lifelong friendships had developed between all the members of the class, and that four of the students had made aliyah and created lives for themselves in Israel. They were eager to catch me up on the details of their lives but preferred at first to reminisce.
Almost simultaneously and in unison, they recited the verse that was the core of the entire course. This verse is to be found in this week's Torah portion, Parshat Vayelech (Deuteronomy 31:1-30). It reads, "Write down this song and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths..."
They went on to recall the difficulty I had convincing them, and their equally argumentative classmates, that these words were a command to all Jews, for all future generations, to write a Torah scroll for themselves, or to have one written for them.
One of them, let's call him Sheldon, insisted that we, at least at first, limit our conversation to the effect that this verse had upon the lives of each of them. He began with his own story: "When I signed up for the class, I did so in a state of total ignorance of Judaism. I had moved to Washington to take up a position in an insurance company. I was alone and lonely and signed up for the course more for companionship than for scholarship. I soon changed my attitude and remember asking you about the best way to begin to gain more knowledge about my faith. You referred to the verse we all just recited and told me that the best thing I could do was to take any translation of the Chumash, the Five Books of Moses, and simply read it through from beginning to end. I did so, and I was hooked."
Let's refer to the second fellow to chime in as Dan. He elaborated upon Sheldon's remarks and informed me that Sheldon was being excessively modest. "I want you to know that ever since that first exposure to the Chumash, Sheldon has never failed to complete the entire book every year, usually with a different rabbinic commentary each year. At our meetings, he inevitably catches us up with his latest Torah insights."
Sheldon was not long in prodding Dan to boast a bit about the direction in which this one verse in our parsha had taken Dan. So Dan let us in on some of his story: "I remember how you had asked us to imagine the Jewish people living for a long period of time with no knowledge of the Torah, without even an awareness of its existence. We resisted this assignment, partly because we were convinced that this never could have happened. It is inconceivable that there could have been a time when the entire Jewish people were ignorant of the Torah. But then you read to us the story in the Book of Kings II, chapters 22 and 23 as I recall, in which the Torah was rediscovered during the reign of King Josiah, after having been forgotten for more than a generation. I became interested then, not only in the Five Books of Moses, but in all of the Bible. I eventually earned a doctorate in biblical history and have written more than one book on the subject."
At that point, Dan's surname came into clearer focus for me, and I told him that I had indeed read one of his books. I apologized to him that I no longer owned it because I had recently donated the greater portion of my library to my former synagogue and to a local yeshiva.
It was now the chance for the third person in our group to take center stage. "There is something that I remember from that class that fits right in to what you just told us—that you have donated so many of your books to others to study," he said. "You had taught us that one of the Medieval rabbinic authorities, perhaps Rabbenu Asher, had ruled that if one distributed any sacred book to others to read and study, it was as if he had written his own Torah scroll. I don't know whether or not you have ever written a Torah scroll, but you fulfilled the last mitzvah of the Torah by sharing your books with others."
It was now the turn for group member number four. "There is one thing that you said in passing that remained with me all these years. I was then a student of musicology, a cherished subject which never eventuated in a career for me. But I was intrigued by a statement you quoted from a man you identified as one of your most inspiring rabbinic figures. Long afterwards, I learned that it was Rav Kook who made the statement. You pointed out that the verse we were studying refers to the Torah as a song, as music. Rav Kook went further and said that just as music has its rules, so too do rules have their music. That was such an important lesson for me. I came to the class from a very observant background, but I was turned off by the many rules that comprised the Judaism I was taught. The notion that rules have their own music has been a lifelong inspirational lesson for me and has enabled me to better appreciate the rules of Jewish observance."
The conversation ended, and we said our goodbyes. Walking home, I debated inwardly about whether or not I should write about this experience. I was proud beyond words that such a worthy group remembered and valued my teaching. I asked myself whether or not it would be appropriate for me to share this flattering experience with my readers.
I had just about decided not to do so when two realizations occurred to me .Firstly, I became aware that I had just experienced a reiteration of a lesson I have long sought to convey to others. Teachers never know the impact they have on their students. Often, they become deeply discouraged, convinced that their years of teaching were for naught. Writing about my experience would bring encouragement to others who have labored in the trying vineyards of the teaching profession.
Secondly, after some further thought, I realized that it was not my teaching skill that left a lifelong impact upon these fine men. In fact, I had no cause to feel flattered. My words were not at all the cause of their inspired learnings. Rather, the words that inspired them were the Torah's words: the verse in this week's parsha, the sacred narrative in the Book of Kings II, the ruling of Rabbenu Asher, and Rav kook’s pithy epigram.
I was merely the messenger who brought those words to the eager ears of some wonderful young adults. After all is said and done, every teacher is but a messenger. And we are all teachers.