Many Jews – even those not steeped in higher-level Torah study, have heard the line about a parent’s obligation to teach their child how to swim. It is an attractive law, and visually powerful. The source is in the Talmud (Kiddushin 29a), where there is a list that includes the obligation to circumcise your son, redeem a child from captivity, teach your child Torah, marry the child off, and to teach him/her a way to make a living. The list adds, “And there are those who say, even to teach him/her how to swim”. (While the original intent of the Aramaic/Hebrew text means “the son”, we can readily understand how it would apply in our day to all children in all cases – except circumcision.)
That was my earliest hint that eventually, led by my usual understandably circuitous route, to “flashlights” in the world of our Rabbis. From there I was looking into how Jewish law spelled out in detail the ways children should perform the Mitzvah of honoring parents. One specific item – rising when a parent enters the room produces lively reactions when I ask, “How many of you had special chairs at the dining room table where only your mother and father sat?”
From there – rising in the presence of another – I was led to student-teacher (rav-talmid) relations, some of which I remember with an equal amount remaining fuzzy in my mind. Every one agreed that we rise when the judge enters the courtroom, or when the President or another person of high office entered. I also remember some people who told me they had a professor in college before whom they would rise when he or she entered the classroom, but it was rarely the case. Occasionally I would hear of members of the audience who stood up when their rabbi entered.
Things became more complex with a topic that floods many pages of Talmud regarding servants’ relations to their owners. For that, I could only manage a few scraps of knowledge.
The culmination of this journey came when I discovered the phrase in an early Midrash (Pesikta deRav Kahana, Beshalach 11:8), “The proper practice is for the Talmid to walk before the Rav, carrying a lantern (or “torch”) — “panas”, the modern Hebrew word for a flashlight. The context is a list things a student is supposed to do for his teacher: wash, dress, put the shoes on, carry (?) and to stand by the bedside while the teacher sleeps. Some of these seem too intimate and far-fetched to us, but a later Midrash (Exodus Rabba 25:6) which changes every one on the list to what a servant does for the master — except for carrying the torch which remains student and teacher. This makes more sense.
I remain fascinated by this entire string of descriptions of interrelationships, and here are a few comments and clarifications:
- The visual image of the student carrying the torch in the darkness so the teacher will not stumble or fall is very powerful. Add to that, the fear of robbers and the ancient belief in demons who come out at night, and it is yet more striking. Metaphorically, of course, one of the student’s jobs is to protect the teacher — something I was never taught, and something which I think we should teach nowadays.
- There are several passages in the Talmud which explain that, if the teacher listens carefully to students, the teacher’s own Torah will be sharper and better for it. Again, pedagogically, students should be made aware of this, since it will tell them early on, the classroom is not one-directional. It also prevents teacher arrogance and bullying, even if the professor is a world leader in the field.
- The Talmudic references are not to just any teacher. The texts are speaking of those who taught us the most meaningful things about Life and helped mold our own lives. By a simple expansion of this idea it would include inside and outside the classroom, secular and Jewish.
- Nowadays, I believe there is a plan of action for us, based on the student’s obligations to the teacher, or “shimush talmidei hachamim”, as it is known in our literature. We must seek out those people who profoundly contributed to us as individuals – teachers, friends all the way back to childhood, life-guides, relatives in our extended families, and most certainly parents. We must find them, and see them and tell them what they mean to us. Second best is calling them. And third best, is e-mail.
Last year I contacted the principal of my high school, Sandy Orr. He and his wife founded it a couple of years earlier to reach creative students, students who learned differently, and others who were troubled and difficult and some bounced out of other schools. He was 90 years old and drove across town from Northern Virginia to me on the Maryland side of Washington, and he brought my “folder” …report cards and all! Face to face at lunch, I told him exactly what was on my mind. I am who I am in no small part because of him and his late wife, Eleanor.
Every summer in Israel I visit my first high-level Bible teacher, Professor Shalom Paul, and my master Talmud teacher, the Prodigy of Sighet, Rabbi David Weiss-Halivni. While they may not have been aware of what they did for me in the 1960’s, I made certain by my words, my respect, and my affection that my Torah study and its connection to Life is their legacy to me.
It is entirely appropriate to do this. I would say there is not only an element of Mitzvah in these acts of gratitude, but some touch of holiness. And it’s the least we can do.