Education, Learning and Teaching, the Three Touchstones of Being a Jew
How important is education? As Jews, I think many of us, particularly those who had immigrant parents, felt the weight of their expectation regarding education. How many of us handed over every birthday check sent by far-flung relatives to be put into a college fund?
A 2016 Pew Research Center report found that, with an average of 13.4 years of schooling, Jews are the most highly educated of the major religious groups. We are the People of the Book and for us, education is more than just a cultural imperative; it’s a religious one, as well. “Teach Your Children” is the title of one of my favorite songs by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, but it’s what the Torah teaches us, too.
Pesach offers two of the best examples of this is Parshat Bo (dealing with the last three plagues and the Exodus), where the text turns three times to the subject of children and the duty of parents to educate them and the Haggadah.
We’re required to tell the Pesach story to our children, to teach them. And what are they required to do? Ask questions, and that’s where our tradition deviates from other cultures. Blind obedience is an alien concept to us. In fact, even with 613 commandments, there is no word in Hebrew for “obey.” It had to be borrowed from Aramaic. Questioning is part and parcel of being a Jew. Asking good questions is how we learn and gain understanding.
Isador Rabi, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in physics, said that his mother made him a scientist. When other children were asked by their mothers, “What did you learn today in school?”, his mother asked, “Did you ask a good question today?” In a 2012 essay, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom until his death, said, “Written into the very structure of Hebraic consciousness is the idea that our highest duty is to seek to understand the will of God, not just to blindly obey.”
That extends to our children. It is our duty to teach them how to learn, how to ask questions.
You can’t really talk about education without highlighting those who educated us, our own teachers. I always thought that first grade teachers should be the highest paid professionals in our society. What could be more important than teaching a child to read, than opening the door to the rich and infinite worlds hiding between the covers of a book?
Pirkei Avot 1:6 says, “Make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person on the positive side.” That the first phrase uses the word “make” rather than “get” or “acquire” is interesting. It implies that you can make anyone your teacher as long as you’re willing to learn from that person. And who is wise? Three chapters later, Ben Zoma tells us: “He who learns from everyone.”
Education, learning, teaching. The three touchstones of being a Jew.
Here’s to teaching our children, making for ourselves teachers, and lifelong learning!