Jewish Educators Walk the Walk

Recently, I read a eulogy written about a young member of our day school family. To paraphrase the writer: “Perhaps instead of studying Pirkei Avot, one should have spent a day with this wonderful man.” The writer’s point being that this man exemplified the lessons that Avot teaches. Why study the text when we can study the person?

As Judaic teachers, our mission may be to exemplify the character traits we strive so hard to teach. Students carefully watch the way we conduct ourselves bein adam le-chaveiro, between man and his fellow. At times, children will equate their relationship with their Judaism with their relationships with their Judaic instructors.

I often think of the well known advice to parents: Do not worry that your kids do not listen to all you say. Worry that they watch all you do. As Torah teachers, we need to worry less that our students are not listening to all we teach and more that they watch all we do. We do not want to be viewed as “talking the talk but not walking the walk.” Here are some lessons from Pirkei Avot that we should embody.

“Judge every person favorably.” When a student has a hard morning, when a parent misses a conference or does not respond to an important email, this is an opportunity for us to judge our students and parents favorably.

“Greet every person with a cheerful countenance.” When our students walk into our classrooms in the morning, do we greet them with a cheery “good morning” or do we bark orders at them? Do we greet the custodian with the same respect that we greet the president of the board?

“A teacher who is too strict cannot teach.” We must be patient with our students. Long after they may forget the Torah we taught them, our students will remember the way we treated them when they did not “get it” the first time. 

“Who is wise? He who learns something from every person.” We must tell our students that we learn from them and from others every day. We must be humble and allow our students to know that we did not invent the wheel. We learn from our students, our colleagues, and our parents.

While maintaining professionalism, it may be an idea to talk about Jewish life outside of school. At times we may be attending a brit milah, or a bar or bat mitzvah. We may have the opportunity to care for an elderly parent or person with special needs. Perhaps we can share memories of our own bar or bat mitzvah and what it meant to us. We can talk about Shabbat and holiday dinners, the stories, the divrei Torah, the special guests, and more. These are opportunities for our students to see that Judaism is a 24/7 tradition that is most definitely not limited to the classroom.

Moshe was our first leader. He is referred to as Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our teacher. Why was Moshe chosen to be the leader of the Jewish people? Was it because of his eloquent speaking ability? Probably not. We know Moshe had a serious speech defect. Was it because of his leadership experience? We know he was a shepherd, not a people person. Was it because of his popularity amongst the Jewish people? He fled Egypt because Datan and Aviram had slandered him to Pharaoh and talked ill about him to his Jewish brethren.

A midrash in Shmot Rabbah relates: When our teacher Moses was tending Jethro’s flock in the desert, a little sheep ran away from him and he pursued it. At last, the little sheep found a pool of water and stopped to drink. When Moses caught up, he said: “Little sheep, I did not know that you were running because of thirst. You must be tired.” He took the little sheep on his shoulder and led him back to the flock. Said the Holy One Blessed Be He, “You have shown compassion in tending the flocks. By your life, you will tend my flock Israel.”

It was not Moshe’s charisma, eloquent speech nor his leadership qualities. It was his compassion and concern for a lost little sheep that influenced God to choose him to be our leader and our teacher. Who are the lost sheep in our classrooms? These students are often disruptive as they cry out for help. Can we muster the strength to show compassion and support in a Moshe-like fashion?

Moshe later became our greatest advocate as highlighted in the events which transpired in the desert. We can learn from Moshe to be our students’ advocates to their parents and to other teachers.

Moshe knew his talents and abilities. He understood how privileged he was to lead the Jewish people, to teach them Torah and to speak “face to face” with God. And yet, Moshe was the most humble man who ever lived, as highlighted in the last few sentences of the Torah.

Ashreinu! How fortunate we are to come “face to face” each day with the Godly sparks within our students. And how humbled we are to be a link in the chain of Jewish educators who for generations have “walked the walk” modeled for us by Moshe Rabbeinu.♦

Frumie Posner is a Judaic studies instructor at the N. E. Miles Jewish Day School in Birmingham, Alabama.

Frumie Posner
Day School Teachers
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Teaching and Learning