As the holiday of Shavuot approaches, we not only give gratitude to G-d for the Torah given to us on Mount Sinai, but we also acknowledge our Torah scholars. Maimonides, in his section of Mishna Torah that deals with the laws related to Torah study, points out that there are two biblical laws connected with this subject. The first is the obligation to study Torah on a regular basis so that we be able to “teach our children,” and the second is to respect those who teach Torah and have a great knowledge of all that encompasses the holy books.
Rabbi Berel Wein recently wrote that he felt that there was a certain intellectual dishonesty by those who adopt the way of moral relativism and “new age” views without taking a serious look at the wisdom of the old school and its sages. Before deciding that the values and principles taught in the past are no longer applicable, at least be familiar with them before rejecting them.
Recently, I found myself reminiscing to my students some of the teachings of my beloved rabbi and mentor, Rabbi Selig Starr, of blessed memory. To my surprise, my students acknowledged that the teachings I received in the seventies are worth teaching again and need to be shared.
Rabbi Starr came to Chicago from the Old Country and studied in such illustrious Yeshivot as Nevardok, Telshe, and Slobodka. He taught at the Hebrew Theological College from 1921 to 1981 and in certain instances was privileged to teach three generations. He was as proud of his M.A. from the University of Chicago as he was of his brilliance in Talmudic study. Rabbi Starr’s system of educating was definitely Old School.
Even when he was eighty years old, sitting in Rabbi Starr’s class was a challenge. In the process of familiarizing his students with the Talmud and Jewish Law, he taught many important life lessons that are not heard very often in today’s sophisticated world of technology and scientific advances.
The main theme of Rabbi Starr’s teachings was his emphasis on honesty and clarity of thought. The two go together for if one is honest, he will admit when he doesn’t understand and he will not fool himself. Rabbi Starr used to say in a humorous way that when you see two people in a conversation and both are nodding their heads, it means that neither one knows what the other is talking about! On numerous occasions he said, “You have to know what you know and know what you don’t know.”
This theme continued when he described confusion as “the world’s most crippling disease.” He strongly disliked flattery and showing off. On one occasion I was privileged to take Rabbi Starr to a banquet where I thought the speaker spoke very eloquently. The rabbi was not impressed and he said, “He studied his Funk and Wagnall’s very well.”
Rabbi Starr also warned against those who are unwilling to face their problems head on. He would say that when one continuously “sweeps the dust under the carpet, after a while, you have a mountain of dust.” If you are phony and insincere and you look for short cuts, you will have trouble living with yourself. You will not be able to sit comfortably on a chair and it will be as if the chair has “pins and needles.” You will not have peace of mind knowing that you are not really the person that you would like people to think you are.
There was always an emphasis on simplicity and orderliness in one’s life. It was important to keep calm and take everything into account before making an important decision. Rabbi Starr never liked seeing two people in an argument where they raised their voices in order to prove their point. He said that if you see such a verbal exchange, it means that “they are trying to prove that two plus two equals five!”
Rabbi Starr gave brilliant marital advice to his students. He would tell an engaged student that you must work very hard at your marriage. Once you have made the decision of who you want to marry, she is the only woman for you for the rest of your life. You are going to do everything possible to make your marriage work. I have passed this advice along to numerous students of mine over the years, and on many occasions, they came back to tell me this was the best advice ever received. I learned it from Rabbi Starr.
The final lesson learned from the esteemed rabbi was that one should never tell a lie. He would add, “not even a white lie.” It was honesty and truthfulness at all costs. We did not realize how such a simple idea as always telling the truth would prove to be a rarity among men.
Upon examining the many ideas expressed here, it makes the Old School look pretty intelligent. Most of these teachings are not emphasized today, but they certainly should be.
On this coming Shavuot holiday when we give thanks for having received the Torah, the greatest gift to mankind, we should reacquaint ourselves with the wisdom of our scholars. Their insights are far too precious to throw away in the name of progress and modernism. Chag Sameach.