We all know it has been a hard summer. Around Tisha B’av, so many commented on the intersection of the weeks of sadness Jews feel worldwide and events in Israel causing pain to so many. Beginning our school year in the midst of such suffering was, to put it mildly, a challenge. So many educators felt, to paraphrase one of my colleagues: “How can we be working about decorating bulletin boards at a time like this?”
As we began our teacher inservice week, the Torah reading was parshat Eikev. Looking at the haftorah, the second in the series of seven aimed at comforting the Jewish People, I was struck by one verse that seemed out of place:
“The Lord God gave me a tongue for teaching, to know to establish times for the faint [for His] word; He awakens me every morning, He awakens My ear, to hear according to the teachings.” (Isaiah 50:4)
I can’t say I had previously noticed this verse, nor its appropriateness for the time of year; the beginning of the school year. The Prophet compares his mission to that of a teacher! Contained in the verse, we could say, is a summary of what makes a good teacher.
First of all, teaching requires, “a tongue for teaching.” As any veteran teacher will tell you, so much in the classroom is dependant on how we say something. Knowing and explaining are two entirely different concepts, and presenting an idea or skill in a way students will comprehend.
The second idea, establishing times, is translated differently by various commentaries. Several present the need to teach in a way consistent with the times. The tension inherent in such a statement has led to much of the intraJudaic squabbling over the last two hundred years. So as to sidestep a protracted argument, let’s explain the idea as translating ancient and timeless ideas into modern parlance. Okay; maybe we didn’t avoid the argument entirely.
The second half of the verse mentions two more important aspects of teaching. Teachers have to wake up each morning. At the beginning of the year, that might not be so difficult. Few days of the year match the excitement of the first day of a new school year. But the shiny newness wears off relatively quickly. We’re tired. We don’t feel 100%. Maybe we have a student or parent who is less than cooperative. But it shouldn’t matter. The challenge, and the call of Isaiah, is to wake up every day with consistent energy, patience, and passion.
And the final idea contained in Isaiah might be the most important. We have to speak and listen simultaneously. We have to hear ourselves through the ears of our students, as it were. We have to ensure our ears never become hardened or indifferent, and that everything we present gives the students’ ears the best chance at inculcating our message.
As mentioned above, this verse seems to come out of nowhere. The Prophet, in an attempt at comforting the Jews, reviews their suffering and the power of God to reverse their collective fortunes. That’s why we read this Haftorah during this period of consilation. But this verse, about teaching and learning, seems a digression. We could say, however, that it carries a critical message, and one that resonates profoundly this year.
As long as there exists a student who is “faint for His word” there is also hope. We endured a summer of abuse and ridicule worldwide. We watched our brothers and sisters suffer, and we tried to feel their pain. I certainly struggled with a myriad of issues, both practical and philosophical, and I struggled to understand the worlds’ reaction. I have to say, I for one returned to school with a mind still foggy from confusion. But this verse helped me, and should help all teachers. Yes, we’ve encountered irrational and at times unbearable suffering over the previous months and millenia. But there’s hope. Students will return to class this fall and want to learn. We have to wake up each morning ensuring the hope endures.