Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Who will you choose for your teacher?

We are taught in our Jewish sources to “make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a trusted friend.” As the school year winds down and so many of us are either working in educational pursuits or have children, siblings and others in our lives who are living in the educational world one way or another, let us consider this concept on Erev Shavuot, the celebration of our receiving the teachings of our Torah, and hopefully by association, providing us with an opportunity to consider who we choose as our teachers of Torah and life itself.

To do so, I will reference Eruvin 13a – 13b in the Talmud. Now many of you know the text “These and those are the words of the Living G-d, and the Halacha goes according to Hillel.” What is more important and powerful than this statement sometimes minimized to almost pithy uses is the text in which it is embedded.

The first teacher I want to reference is Rabbi Meir, thought of with great esteem and honor. What is so interesting to me is that we should remember that a most important teacher of his was Elisha ben Abuyah (referred to as “acher” and summarily dismissed in our texts often for his apostasy). We are taught that often the teachings of Elisha ben Abuyah are handed over to us through his brilliant student. So first of all, let us all pause for a moment and give thought to those teachers who have been forgotten and/or discredited for whatever reasons, legitimate or otherwise. Nonetheless, we still carry on their worthy teachings and thus a good and positive part of their legacy.

Now, back to Rabbi Meir. His brilliance is clearly stated in this text. We are informed that he studied as well under Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva. One problematic issue is that this teacher spoke of his own brilliance, so we are told (granted in material that is considered story narrative or Aggadic). Further, we are told that Rabbi Meir originally went to learn from Rabbi Akiva but could not understand nuanced meanings of his teachings due to Rabbi Akiva’s superior gift of and capacity for logic. Therefore, Rabbi Meir went to learn the laws and practices from Rabbi Yishmael and then returned to Rabbi Akiva. So from this we learn that we have had many different types of teachers and they have all been important – both the ones who have taught us the content and those who have guided us in the application of that content. We should remember these as well as important influences and guides in our lives.

Now we will turn to the teaching styles of Hillel and Shammai. The text on 13b is the one from which the quote in the beginning is cited. But let’s look at the longer text. There is a discussion about forms of impurity and the minutia that is so important in insuring that the various associated dictates are observed. As in many cases, the students of Hillel and Shammai disagreed. At this point we are told that for three years this debate went on and each said “The Halacha follows us.” A Heavenly voice comes and says, “These and those are the words of the Living G-d and the Halacha goes according to Hillel.”

So the obvious question is if both are legitimate views, so to speak, why does the Halacha favor one over the other. Here is the reason given: Because the students of Hillel were more lenient and easy on others, and they would study both their point of view and that of the students of Shammai, and not only that, but they would cite the teachings of Bet Shammai before their own.

Here we find a most important quality in teaching – willingness to listen, consider and give credence to the opinion and stance of the other. We often speak of “going to learn” in the Jewish tradition when we are the facilitators and teachers. Why do we do this? For the simple reason that the best gift I can give a learner is my own acumen as a learner. How do I model that – by listening to and learning from others.

So for those of us sitting up all night tonight for our Tikkun Leil Shavuot (Night of Learning) and for all of us involved in any type of learning, let us consider what qualities we want in our teachers and for those of us who are teachers, let us take an important lesson from Hillel. Chag Shavuot Sameach to all!

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