Education has become an industry in itself, more than simply a vocation centered around imparting knowledge, entire methods of thought have sprung up with the goal of developing better means of educating students. Some of the ideas are new and genuine advancements, while others are merely newfangled.
Just because an idea in education is new doesn’t mean that it is better, and just because a method has been used for years doesn’t mean it is no longer effective. Our Sedra contains a perfect example of appreciation of the old. In this Dvar Torah we’ll look at Yitzchak’s appreciation of his father’s past accomplishments and his loyalty to them. This Dvar Torah aims to give the reader an appreciation of the old.
Years before the episode described in our Sedra, Avraham made a deal with a local warlord named Avimelech. The deal centered around well rights, with Avraham and Avimelech reaching an agreement. In honor of this agreement, Avraham gave Avimelech seven lambs, and named the place of the deal Be’er Sheva (the well of seven).
Years later Yitzchak had a run in with this same Avimelech. Yitzchak’s staff had a run in with Avimelech’s staff over those same wells that Avraham had dug. Avimelech traveled to Yitzchak who questioned Avimelech’s motives, and Avimelech exclaimed, “We have seen that the Lord was with you; so we said: Let there now be an oath between us, between ourselves and you, and let us form a covenant with you.”
Following his father’s actions, Yitzchak seals a covenant with Avimelech, and they feasted together and took oaths to each other. Following Avimelech’s departure life continues as normal and Yitzchak’s staff begins to dig wells in their new area.
Yitzchak’s staff excitedly told Yitzchak that they had found water and had dug a fully functioning well. Yitzchak’s reaction is recorded in our Sedra, “And [Yitzchak] named it Shevah (seven); therefore, the city is named Beer sheba until this very day.” Yitzchak didn’t rename the area after his accomplishment, he commemorated his father’s actions by preserving the name his father had given to the area. Like a good educator recognizing an established practice for the advanced means it provides, Yitzchak recognized his father’s achievements and followed them.
While the method of teaching, the material taught, and assessment metrics are all essential for a successful educational experience, a proper learning environment lends to even better learning for the student and easier teaching for the teacher. A proper learning environment includes a place that is without distractions, clean and well lit.
When creating a proper learning environment for Torah study and observance there are other factors that are important as well. In this week’s Sedra, we find an example of setting up the most effective environment for Torah observance. The example in this week’s sedra is interesting for the environment is set not by those who study or observe the Torah, but in fact the opposite, those that worship idols. The goal of this Dvar Torah is to give the reader direction in setting up proper environments.
In our Sedra we learn of Avraham’s servant Eliezer being set on a mission to find his master’s son Yitzchak, a wife. Avraham wasn’t happy with the values of those around him and didn’t want his son marrying into families with low moral standards. Avraham sent Eliezer back to his homeland to find a wife with proper values.
Eliezer sets out on his quest with certain goals in mind. Eliezer was first and foremost looking for a girl with a character full of kindness. His search ended fairly quickly when he ran into a beautiful young woman named Rivkah who upon meeting Eliezer offers him and his camels water. Amazed at this girl’s startling character, Eliezer is interested in meeting her family and is invited back to her home to arrange the marriage of Rivkah and Yitzchak.
Hashem records that when Rivkah’s family prepares for Eliezer’s arrival, Lavan, the master of the house, sees Eliezer outside and says to him, “”Come, you who are blessed of the Lord. Why should you stand outside, when I have cleared the house, and a place for the camels?” In his commentary on this verse, Rashi wrote that Lavan didn’t merely clean the house to ensure it was neat and orderly, but rather he rid it of idols.
Lavan understood that marrying Rivkah to Yitzchak wasn’t merely finding her a suitable spouse, but was marrying her to a lifestyle of morals and values. To set the tone and establish a foundation for the rest of her life, a proper environment needed to be created. Like the teacher setting up a classroom for proper learning, Lavan sets up his home for proper Torah observance by ridding the home of idols. When setting the environment for Torah learning and observance, all ideas, especially idolatrous and primitive ones must be set aside and cleared away.
Teachers enter their chosen field to impart knowledge, demonstrate the beauty of wisdom and inspire future generations to become life learners. Educators rarely chose to teach for their own enjoyment and the teacher has yet to be found who explained that their vast wealth came from a successful career in the classroom.
When repeating the same behavior over and over, it is easy to lose focus, this is true of teachers as much as anyone. To retain focus teachers should frequently ask themselves, “Who am I here for?” This Dvar Torah will provide a prime example of easily lost focus. This week’s Sedra contains the well known incident of Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt. In examining her Divine punishment, this Dvar Torah aims to warn the reader of the danger of losing focus.
God records that the angel warns Lot of the impending destruction of his town, Sodom. After a lengthy discussion explaining that Lot and his family were to be saved, God wrote, “And it came to pass, when they took them outside, that [the angel] said, “Flee for your life, do not look behind you, and do not stand in the entire plain. Flee to the mountain, lest you perish.” The key instruction in this phrase, and one which Lot should have emphatically emphasized it his family was “do not look behind you.”
In his commentary on the angel’s warnings, Rashi explained why Lot and his family were prohibited from looking back. Rashi wrote, “You dealt wickedly together with them, but in Abraham’s merit you are saved. You do not deserve to see their punishment while you are being saved.” By turning back, Lot or his family would be stating they were righteous and worthy of being saved and of watching their evil neighbors, deserving of Divine wrath, be punished.
Lot’s wife didn’t heed the angel’s warning. Thinking she was meritorious of salvation in her own right, she turned around. God recorded, “And He turned over these cities and the entire plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and the vegetation of the ground. And [Lot’s] wife looked from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.”
It is easy to imagine the difficult conversation Lot had with his family about it not being their merit that enabled them to be saved, but in the merit of Avraham their cousin. Yet Lot’s wife lost focus, she thought it was about her, and not her husband’s righteous family.
Teacher’s must not repeat Lot’s wife’s error. They must not turn their back on their students by imagining their efforts are the focus and instead they must recognize that their students’ achievements are where their energies must be directed. It is through their students’ accomplishments that their efforts are measured.
Students require more than simply learning facts. Especially when it comes to history, a student needs to be shown the link because cause and effect. An excellent teacher not only highlights the cause of each event, but states explicitly, with as much clarity as possible, how a certain factor caused the event under study to occur.
Making cause and effects and their mechanics clear isn’t necessary just for history classes, but is just as crucial in Torah studies. In this week’s Sedra we find the first “Middle East Spring,” as subjugated nations rise up against a twelve year dictatorship. As much as Avraham is geographically caught in the middle of this war, he tries to stay out of it militarily. As his relative, Lot, is taken captive, Avraham is drawn into the conflict. It is in this episode that we see a perfect example of cause and effect taught well.
After Avraham saves Lot, he saves the Kings of Sodom and Gomorrah. Hashem recorded in the Torah, “Now the valley of Siddim contained many clay pits, and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled and fell there.” Rashi explained that the Midrash records that the king of Sodom got stuck in the clay and through a miracle the king of Sodom escaped. Why did this miracle happen? There were sceptics who did not believe that Abraham had been saved from the fiery furnace of Ur, but since the king of Sodom escaped from the clay, they believed in Abraham retroactively.”
Ramban questioned the simple interpretation of the Medrash. The sceptics wouldn’t be more willing to believe that Hashem performed a miracle for Avraham and believe in Hashem upon seeing the miracle of the King of Sodom escaping from the clay, because the king of Sodom was an idolater, and a miracle done for an idolater only strengthens the idea that the idol helps its believers! A miracle for the King of Sodom would only place doubt in the hearts of those who believed that Hashem did save Avraham!?
Rather, explains the Ramban, what happened was that Avraham was passing by and the King of Sodom was able to extricate himself just at the moment Avraham was passing by, for a miracle was done to honor Avraham. People reasoned, if a miracle was done to the King of Sodom for Avraham’s honor, then all the more so it would be done for Avraham himself.
The Ramban’s comments explicitly draw the line between the cause – Avraham walking by the pit and then the King of Sodom being saved – and the effect – people believing in Hashem. Without that connection being taught, the Medrash’s recording doesn’t make much sense. The Ramban showed that more than any other subject, Chumash study needs explicit and clear explanations.
The debate over whether education is about facilitating learning or supplying knowledge seems never ending. Each educator has their own opinion if their role in the classroom and their responsibility towards their students is to facilitate or supply. The well known axiom, give a man a fish, and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for life, applies well to this debate. A teacher who supplies information provides their students a limited amount of knowledge, but a teacher who facilitates learning, teaching their students how to amass knowledge on their own has given their students an infinite amount of knowledge.
This Dvar Torah will illustrate how in Sedrat Noach, both approaches to education are demonstrated. In this week’s sedra, Noach builds a large ship to provide refuge to the animals and his family during an impending flood meant to restart the world’s population. When the flood ends and the water subsides, Noach is instructed to resettle the land. It is within God’s command for Noach to exit the ship that two approaches to education are found. This Dvar Torah aims to clarify when it is appropriate for teachers to supply information and when it is best to facilitate learning.
As the waters subsided God instructed Noach, “Go out of the ship, you and your wife, and your sons, and your sons’ wives with you. Every living thing that is with you of all flesh, of fowl, and of animals and of all the creeping things that creep on the earth, bring out with you, and they shall swarm upon the earth, and they shall be fruitful and multiply upon the earth.”
Our traditional text of the Torah includes the kere (the way the text is read) and ketiv (the way it is written) system, in which marginal notes indicate that certain words are to be read differently than they are spelled in the text, certain words in the text should not be read at all, or that certain words not in the text should be read in that spot.
The verse that commands Noach to “bring out all the animals” contains a classic Kere and Ketiv phrase. The word is written הוֹצֵא, but is read as הַיְצֵא. Rashi explains the different meanings of these two phrases. הַיְצֵא (the way the verse is read) means tell them that they should come out. הוֹצֵא (the way it is written) means: if they do not wish to come out, you take them out.
Rashi’s explanation fits perfectly into the debate over an educator’s role. The way the verse reads, that Noach should tell them they should come out, points to facilitated learning, where Noach guides them in the direction they should go. The way the verse is written, forcibly taking reluctant animals out, points to supplying information. In this approach it would seem facilitated learning is ideal, while in specific situations, supplying information is necessary.
Good teachers don’t just see the classroom as a place to impart knowledge, but a place to impart the skills, passion and enthusiasm needed to allow their students to succeed in life. Students require more than information to become contributing members of society. There are certain life lessons that can’t be taught from a book, these lessons must be modeled and explained by teachers, both inside and outside of the classroom.
One of the most important lessons a teacher can impart to their students is making good choices. Free choice is the greatest trait that man possesses and what separates him from the rest of creation. It is only by making good choices that man is able to perfect themselves. This Dvar Torah will explain the importance of free choice. The reader should gain clarity from this Dvar Torah not just about free choice, but about the uniqueness of mankind.
In our Sedra, God discussed the change in human nature after Adam and Chava ate from the tree of knowledge. It is written in our Sedra, “Now the Lord God said, ‘Behold man has become like one of us, having the ability of knowing good and evil, and now, lest he stretch forth his hand and take also from the Tree of Life and eat and live forever.'”
The Rambam wrote, “Free will is granted to all men. If one desires to turn himself to the path of good and be righteous, the choice is his. Should he desire to turn to the path of evil and be wicked, the choice is his.” Discussing the change in human nature post the seminal sin, the Rambam continued, “This is the intent of the Torah’s statement: ‘Behold, man has become unique as ourselves, knowing good and evil,’ i.e., the human species became singular in the world with no other species resembling it in the following quality: that man can, on his own initiative, with his knowledge and thought, know good and evil, and do what he desires. There is no one who can prevent him from doing good or bad. Accordingly, there was a need to drive him from the Garden of Eden, ‘lest he stretch out his hand [and take from the tree of life.'”
Free will, the Rambam wrote, “is a fundamental concept and a pillar on which rests the totality of the Torah and mitzvot as the Torah states: “Behold, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.” Similarly, it states, “Behold, I have set before you today the blessing and the curse],” implying that the choice is in your hands.”
Man gains perfection by overcoming challenges to his character. When man’s desires are mismatched against what he knows to be right, it’s his ability to choose a good path over a bad path that allows man to overcome challenges and refine his character. The Mishna in Pirkie Avos backs this up when it states, reward is according to the effort. Reward is a direct reflection of one’s perfection, and therefore perfection stems from the effort put in overcoming one’s desire.