Mordechai Soskil

Getting Ready for the First Day of School

Parshat Ki Teitzei is filled to the brim with a wide range of mitzvot. A few of these generate a lot of attention either because they are hard for the modern reader to understand or because they are incredible easy fodder for a touchy feely dvar Torah. Perhaps the most prosaic of all the mitzvot in the parsha is to have honest weights and measures. לא יהיה בכיסך אבן ואבן גדולה וקטנה. לא יהיה בביתך איפה ואיפה גדולה וקטנה. אבן שלימה וצדק יהיה לך. You should not have in your purse two types of stone weights. You should not have in your house two types of Eipha measures. You should have a full and just stone weight. It’s clear that the Torah is requiring that we approach business and other monetary matters with honesty and full disclosure. The weight I use to put on one pan of the scale to sell a pound of sugar has to be the weight I use to buy a pound of flour. And both those weights have to be authentic, true pounds.  Prosaic, boring, dear I say, obvious.

Also, it doesn’t seem that applicable to me. In the industrialized, post-modern world we occupy, weights and measures aren’t so much a part of day to day living. But even if I don’t spend a lot of time in the buying and selling of commodities, that doesn’t mean I’m not measuring the worth of something. Or someone. We make those types of judgements all the time. And I wonder if the measure that we use to judge something going in is the same as the measure we use to judge something going out.

Meaning, just like the Torah is telling us to judge what we sell (that is, give to the world) one way, so too we should judge what we buy (that is, take from the world) the same way. When we are generous in how we appraise our behavior but stingy of our assessment of other people, that a lack of honesty.

The last few months I’ve been on a bit of a moral rampage against regarding parking. People who pull into their spot quickly and at an angle, and then walk away with part their car in an adjacent spot annoy me. They make me angry. They are taking up a perfectly good spot with their bad parking and inconveniencing everyone else, but specifically me, and I don’t like it. I just deleted a whole rant, but in summary, yeah, I don’t like it. But if I’m in a rush and I pull in quickly, and I need to run into mincha, or my hands are full going into shul with a coffee and my seforim, then I look at my back right tire on the line and say, “Meh. It’s pretty close. I’m in a rush. I’ll fix it next time.”  So generous with my own bad parking and so critical of someone else’s. That’s not literally what the pasuk is talking about, but it’s in the same moral box. We should be equally generous when we see how those idiots park as we are when we see our own mildly unskilled parking.

Right now is the last day or two before my school year starts in full swing. Full of nostalgia for the Back to School seasons of my past, with their geometric shapes decorating my fancy new Trapper Keepers and aluminum, cartoon character bedecked lunchboxes, and brown paper supermarket bag book covers, this time of year is always special. As parents, Allison and I find ourselves just a few years before our very last first day of school. Whether this time of year makes you think of freshly sharpened pencils and new highlighters, or induces anxiety about new teachers and a shifting social world, lots of people, teachers, students and parents are looking for advice about how to make this year a productive happy year, memorable for all the right reasons. I wonder if this thought might be helpful. What if we started this year with the same generous judgement of others that we reserve for ourselves.

Parents, be generous in your judgements of teachers. This is an incredibly difficult profession that requires mastery of skills that are both “science” and “art.” Children are coming to our rooms today with an astounding array of mental health challenges, learning challenges, complicated family dynamics, and social issues. Trying to send everyone home at the end of the day safe and happy is much more complicated than it ever was. And also, we have to actually teach them! Teachers are human beings too and they have families. They have sick parents and complicated children, and the same financial stresses as all of us. And they are loving and patient and thoughtful. But no one gets everything right all the time. It’s just not a reasonable expectation that everything is always right. Parents, please be generous with your judgements.

Teachers, be generous with your judgements of our parents! Really, really what parents want for their kids is reasonable and understandable. They want you to notice what’s special and good about their child. They want to know he/she is seen and understood. Parents are overwhelmed with work obligations and trying to pay bills just like we are. Some parents don’t recognize (yet) that you put your heart and soul into everything you do in school. Some parents think this is a transaction not a relationship, and I know that can be hurtful. But it’s not because they are “rude”. It’s because they are operating at 110%, full press, full stress, and they just can’t manage another relationship they have to manage. And speaking of stress, we know that so many parents are worried about college or yeshiva or seminary acceptances, even many years ahead of time. Not to mention real and imaginary stresses about shidduchim. Parents walk around worried that any misstep now could be something their child deals with years into the future. And if we’re honest, even though some of that worry is imaginary, to our community’s great shame, some if it is not. So they are stressed out but trying their best. Teachers, please be generous with your judgements.

And for the rest of the stakeholders in schools I share the same thought – please be generous in your judgements. Students, you have the most critical eye of teachers and each other. Boy do you judge each other; so quick to label someone “dysfunctional” and “socially off.” So quick to judge a teacher harshly for a look you perceived coming your way. And school administrators – trying to hard to love peace and pursue peace, but also under so much pressure. Good teachers are so hard to find and keep. Payroll needs to be met. You know students need guidance and love not just structure and rules, but sometimes there just isn’t time to do everything. We don’t have time for thoughtful conversations that can win hearts and minds so we are left wielding the tools available to us, like penalties and detentions, even though we know they might change compliance but they don’t impact growth.  I hope you’ll all be generous of your judgements of us administrators.

May Hashem bless us all with generosity, a wonderful school year, and good parking.

About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Soskil has been teaching Torah for more than 20 years. Currently he is the Director of Judaic Studies at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He is also the author of a highly regarded book on faith and hashkafa titled "Questions Obnoxious Jewish Teenagers Ask." He and his wife Allison have 6 children. And a blessedly expanding herd of grandchildren.
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