Haftarah: Shemot: Teaching Lessons
Isaiah 27:6 – 28:13 29:22-23: My father zt”l, once told me the story of a rabbi, who, two days off the boat from Europe, was hired to teach a class of 7 year old Americans. The
young boys heads were filled with images of weak “greenhorns” who would never fit into America. The short, thin, and obviously poor, rabbi would quickly be put into his proper place by his new students. While some of the boys feigned interest in the text, others snuck behind the poor man and tied his jacket to the control string of the heavy window shades. As soon as the knot was secured, one of the boys pretended to fall, prompting the rabbi to quickly rise, in turn triggering the heavy mechanism of the shade, which pulled the rabbi’s coat with the rabbi in it, up toward the top of the window. My father laughed seven decades later when he described the poor man hanging from his coat, kicking and flailing.
The story ended with the phrase, “By the next day, he had us eating out of his hand.” This was my father’s “Power of Teaching” story. This was not a story of a man who had to win the hearts and minds of disinterested students. This was the story of a man treated as an enemy by his young charges and in less than 24 hours transformed them into true students. My father could not explain what the man did to win over his charges so completely. He simply wanted to convey what is possible for a good teacher. If only every teaching story shared a similar ending.
This week’s prophetic selection, with its vibrant colors, imagery, assonance, cadence, rhythm, poetry, memories and contrasts, introduces us to a master teacher. Isaiah’s words have retained their power to educate, and inform, to inspire and touch us, for more than two thousand years. Imagine sitting at the feet of such a teacher. Can you picture what it must have been like to study the Torah with such a tutor and guide? Can you envision how different our religious life would be if nurtured at the hands of Isaiah? I have had teachers and rabbis who changed my life, enriched my thinking, fanned my love for learning and fostered my connection with God. Isaiah was so much more; his students were the constant subjects of his rebuke. He crossed the line between church and state, and painted a picture of a state based on values and truth. The very people he wanted to teach considered him the enemy. His passionate words threatened the powerful. He did not spare king or priest, prophet or parent. Isaiah set out to teach a generation running from God how to run back into His arms.
“To whom shall one explain a message? To those just weaned from mother’s milk, freshly removed from the breast?” (28:9) It is all too exceptional an occasion when a teacher has the opportunity to inscribe his wisdom on a tabula rasa. Rare is the educator who faces open minds thirsty for knowledge. Isaiah knows that the job of a teacher is not only to educate but also to smash false beliefs and convictions, break down the barriers that have been erected in the student’s mind. God did not send Isaiah to speak to people willing to even open their ears to the prophet. “To whom shall one explain a message?” asked Isaiah. “Who will pay attention to me?” ask our teachers. “Who will even care about what I have to say?” is the common plaint of parents.
God did not send Moses to speak to a king who would even consider Moses’ words. Moses did not speak to a nation of fresh excited minds, but to a generation of slaves for whom the world was dark and would so remain. “To whom will I speak?” asked Moses. This week’s portion is not only the story of the beginning of redemption; it is also the tale of the first steps of the greatest teacher in history. Moses, the redeemer, is essentially an educator. Moses does not struggle against assuming the role of redeemer. He fights his desperate battle against his assignment as the teacher of Israel. “What shall I say to them?” “But they will not believe me and they will not heed my voice!” “I am not a man of words.”
“For it is commandment by commandment, commandment by commandment; line by line, line by line; a bit here and a bit there.” (28:10) The prophet describes each revelation, one by one, to his audience in a manner commensurate with their spiritual development. Such development is a gradual learning process that requires measured growth and constant study. God guides Moses step by step through the process of becoming a teacher. Moses will teach Israel with the same method; step by step, commandment-by-commandment, line-by-line. He will steer his students through the process of rising from slavery and mindless service, into free people, capable of thought and creativity, questioning and challenging their great teacher.
The budding teacher wanted to approach the people before they were ready to be taught: God sent Moses to Pharaoh. Moses wanted to begin with the people. God gave Moses a series of signs in steps, 1, 2 &3. Moses performed all 3 steps at once. The greatest teacher in history had to learn how to teach. Moses fails only once, when in a moment of anger, he ceased being a teacher, and hit the infamous rock.
Isaiah describes three descending levels of teachings: commandment, line, and a “little” at a time. He begins with the precept, or principle. The educator begins with an idea, a broad concept that will catch the attention of his students, fire their imaginations, and make them thirsty for more. The prophet then proceeds to introduce a “line”, as in a plumb line, the means to measure vertical and horizontal relationships. Isaiah is not satisfied when the commandment stands alone. He teaches his students to relate the particular precept to others, to each other and the world. The great teacher wants his students to treasure their knowledge, to appreciate its applications to life and the privilege of drinking its waters. Once his students can relate the commandments, the teacher can add “a bit here and a bit there”.
Isaiah, my fantasy teacher, observed Moses’ training as an educator, and, as any great teacher must, discerned each step in Moses’ development and applied them as lessons for him and for us.