Jack Nahmod
Jack Nahmod

Education Torah: It doesn’t matter what you teach

“Just because you taught it doesn’t mean they learned it.” When I heard Dr. Lydia Soifer utter these words, and then repeat them slowly to make sure we understood, nafal ha’asimon: I needed to shift my focus as an educator. It doesn’t matter what you teach, what matters is what your students learn. Even the best curricula in the world, and the most amazing lesson plans, must ultimately be measured by their impact on students.

The building of the Mishkan illustrates this value beautifully. One can imagine, with all the detailed instructions that were provided for the Mishkan, that a mere technician would have sufficed to build it. But instead, this week we read that its builder Betzalel is not only the most artistic person in the Bible, he is also perhaps its most thoughtful and empathic. We are told regarding Betzalel that God “has imbued him with the spirit of God, with wisdom, insight, knowledge and all craftsmanship / וַיְמַלֵּ֥א אֹת֖וֹ ר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֑ים בְּחָכְמָ֛ה בִּתְבוּנָ֥ה וּבְדַ֖עַת וּבְכָל־מְלָאכָֽה.” (Ex. 35:31) He is able “to think deeply / וְלַחְשֹׁ֖ב מַֽחֲשָׁבֹ֑ת,” (Ex. 35:32) and “to do all thoughtful work / לַֽעֲשׂ֖וֹת בְּכָל־מְלֶ֥אכֶת מַֽחֲשָֽׁבֶת.” (Ex. 35:33) Then, as if that weren’t enough, we are finally told, “God gave him the ability to teach / וּלְהוֹרֹ֖ת נָתַ֣ן בְּלִבּ֑וֹ!” (Ex. 35:34)

Betzalel, in other words, actually seems overqualified to build the Mishkan! Why is all this emotional intelligence, this empathy and thoughtfulness, needed to implement God’s blueprint?

One possible answer to this question arises from the context of the building of the Mishkan. Whether one believes that the Mishkan is a response to the sin of the Golden Calf, or simply juxtaposed with it in the text, either way, the two narrative threads are intertwined. There was a fundamental disconnect between God and the nation during the giving of the Torah, and now common ground for them is being built.

One is reminded here of the ideas expressed by Lee Shulman in his classic article Those Who Understand: Knowledge Growth in Teaching (Educational Researcher, 15/2, 1986). After discussing the knowledge of the subject matter that a teacher must have, he then describes what he calls “pedagogical content knowledge.” (p. 9) This, he explains, “goes beyond knowledge of subject matter per se to the dimension of subject matter knowledge for teaching”; it includes “the ways of representing and formulating the subject that make it comprehensible to others.”

It was essential for Betzalel, even with the Mishkan blueprint in hand – or knowledge of the subject matter – to know how to “make it comprehensible” to Bnei Yisrael. “Pedagogical content knowledge,” writes Shulman, “also includes an understanding of what makes the learning of specific topics easy or difficult.” What greater challenge was there for the nascent Israelite nation than finding a way to connect with God?

Just as last week we saw that the hand of Moshe rather than the finger of God inscribes the tablets that ultimately endure in our world, so too do we need Betzalel — a person who is profoundly attentive and attuned to his people — to build God’s home in our world. The building of the Mishkan was not a job for a mere technician, someone trained to faithfully follow directions. Rather, the success of this job depended upon Betzalel having the artistic know-how combined with profound care and concern for the nation. Betzalel, like a teacher, needed to be committed to understanding the people for whom the Mishkan was being built, and what it would take to have them understand it. Only then could it bring them closer to God, and God to them.

About the Author
Rabbi Jack Nahmod is a middle school administrator at a school in Manhattan. He has a Masters Degree in Jewish Studies and is also an attorney.
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