Catchy-Phrase Torah

Epigrammatic literature goes way back. The Greeks had it, and our own Book of Proverbs and selections from Pirke Avot have kept teachers, preachers, and rabbis occupied for many centuries. Brevity, of course, is essential, as “memorabilityness”.

I discovered a unique modern form of the epigram: bumper stickers. Years ago I started collecting them. Among my favorites are: Only you can prevent narcissism and Women who seek to be equal to men lack ambition.

They are tricky. A rare few are profound, some are catchy enough to grab our attention and make us think, some are 100% untrue, and a few are as downright silly as the first lines of some of the Rock and Roll lyrics of my teen-age years in all their dreadful superficiality (which, of course, appealed to me from 13-17.) Friends, acquaintances, the media drop them on us all the time.

BUT – somehow some of them stick in your mind. I had such an occurrence a while back. Someone had told me “It is not good for a person to live a shoulda, coulda, woulda life.” Yesterday and today the words wouldn’t leave me alone. I knew they were a clever way of telling me how to avoid pitfalls in life, and I knew that if I added up all the shoulda-coulda-wouldas in my life, I would need as many Yom Kippurs to make up for them if I lived as long as Methusaleh: all the missed opportunities, bad decisions, dumb things I had racked up over the years, with no end in sight.

But today I chose a cure for this malady by choosing only one shoulda that came to mind, something about teachers.

As I grew up from kindergarten through high school, “teacher” only meant who that person was in front of the classroom. I have a picture somewhere of my ninth grade class and faculty, but it’s nowhere to be found. Instead, I count on my friend and way-back-when classmate Gordon to come up with names, since I only remembered Mr. Duke (social studies), (back then) Mrs. Shields, and for some reason, Hattie Hanks, her name glued to my grey matter because she read the entire Dickens Great Expectations to us.

In college, it was different, because we referred to them as “professor”, but the concept was the same – the man or woman in front of the classroom sharing her and his expertise as we scribbled down as quickly as much as we could.

That was an unfortunate upbringing, though nobody’s fault really. Adding to that, in my Talmud studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary — replete with Rabbi this and Talmid that — page after page, that just didn’t register as a reflection of reality. It was so far away in time and place, and most of it just the words of whoever told the stories, not necessarily the historical reality.

Fortunately, I have seen the light. This is mostly exemplified by how many e-mails to friends I start with the word “Mori” or “Morati” (my teacher)…even to my friends, and to others who might have brought me some insight into whatever matter large or small. Even Rabbis (I know about 500 of them) I have been writing Moraynu or Morataynu instead of using the form of Rabbi…and even though Rabbi means teacher.

Now, everywhere I look, or to whomever I listen, I am thinking “teacher”, and when they have transmitted something of importance, I tell them that they are my teacher.

I believe this approach has opened up new worlds for me; I find teachers among the people behind the counter at the post office, the maintenance people in my building, receptionists.

Even at this late age, while I shoulda been aware of it decades ago, I see no need to beat myself up about it. Instead, I am grateful that I finally “got” it.

As Rabbi Akiva toasted his son at his wedding, Here’s to the life of our teachers, and here’s to the life of their students.

About the Author
Danny Siegel is a well-known author, lecturer, and poet who has spoken in more than 500 North American Jewish communities on Tzedakah and Jewish values, besides reading from his own poetry. He is the author of 29 1/2 books on such topics as Mitzvah heroism practical and personalized Tzedakah, and Talmudic quotes about living the Jewish life well. Siegel has been referred to as "The World's Greatest Expert on Microphilanthropy", "The Pied Piper of Tzedakah", "A Pioneer Of Tzedakah", and "The Most Famous Unknown Jewish Poet in America."
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