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Thursday, 3 May, 2018 - 10:50 am

TEACHER: Maria, go to the map and find North America.
MARIA: Here it is.
TEACHER: Correct. Now class, who discovered America?
CLASS: Maria.

TEACHER: Winnie, name one important thing we have today that we didn't have 10 years ago.

TEACHER: Glenn, why do you always get so dirty?
GLENN: Well, I'm a lot closer to the ground than you are.

TEACHER: George Washington not only chopped down his father's cherry tree, but also admitted it. Now, Louie, do you know why his father didn't punish him?
LOUIS: Because George still had the axe in his hand.

TEACHER: Now, Simon, tell me frankly, do you say prayers before eating?
SIMON: No sir, I don't have to, my Mum is a good cook.

TEACHER: Harold, what do you call a person who keeps on talking when people are no longer interested?
HAROLD: A teacher

As a general rule, the Torah's Mitzvot bind only adults, from the age of Bat/Bar Mitzvah, not children. The Torah commands us to train our children in the practice of Mitzvot, but this applies only from when they can appreciate and understand. Nonetheless, the Torah does instruct adults not to actively assist a child, even an infant, in doing an act prohibited by the Torah. For example, parents may not feed their child non-kosher food.

The Torah alludes to this educational task in three places: 1) In the 17th chapter of Leviticus, where it speaks of the prohibition to eat blood. 2) In Leviticus 22, where it forbids the consumption of insects. 3) In the opening verses of this week’s portion, Emor (Leviticus 21), where it discusses the laws of ritual impurity pertaining to priests. Kohanim are forbidden to become ritually impure, for example, through contact with a corpse. May a Kohen contaminate his young son thus? The Torah prohibits it.

In other words, in each of these three places, the Torah employs language that is interpreted by the Talmud to mean that "the elders are enjoined to charge the youngsters" regarding these laws. It is from these three that we deduce the same law concerning all prohibitions in the Torah: Adults are tasked not to engage their children in any forbidden act.

Why does the Torah choose these three particular instances to convey this idea? There are 365 prohibitions in Torah! Why did the Torah choose to communicate this in these three cases?

The Torah could have just presented a general principle, that an adult must take caution not to cause a child to commit an act forbidden by Torah. Instead, the Torah chose to convey this message in three laws (blood, insects, and impurity), and from there we deduce it for all the other laws. Why?

Rabbi Dr. Leo (Eliyahu) Jung was a major architect of American Judaism. The author of 35 books, Rabbi Jung was extremely active in numerous Jewish educational and social institutions. During World War II he personally collected 1,200 affidavits and helped rescue some 9,000 Jews. He was one of the most noted spokesmen of Judaism in the US.

When Chabad relocated to the US in 1940, Dr. Jung extended his hand and was very instrumental in helping Chabad establish itself in America. A fascinating correspondence developed between the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his son-in-law, and Rabbi Dr. Leo Jung.

In a letter dated 11 Iyar 5704, May 4 1944, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, later to become the Rebbe, penned a two-page letter to Dr. Jung. In it he suggested a deeper explanation why the Torah chose to convey its message about education via the three prohibitions against eating blood, insects, and ritual impurity for priests. The Rebbe explained that these three laws represent three areas in which it is commonly believed that education is futile; that there's no point in trying to influence another person.

The letter is so relevant, it could have been written today.

There are basically three reasons or excuses that parents and educators use to explain why they are unsuccessful in their work.

One is: These kids just don't care. They are unmoved, indifferent, and oblivious. If you were to ask them the difference between apathy and ignorance, they would say, “Don’t know or care.”

Another is: These children are too entrenched in their patterns, and there is not much we can do about it. They are addicted to their iphones, ipods, tablets, laptops, and computers. Every 30 seconds they have to check their Facebook pages, and every 5 minute they need to update it. Education for them is futile.

Then there is the third one: These kids are allergic to authority. They challenge everyone and everything. They have endless chutzpah. I am done with these little Napoleons! Goodbye.

It is to address these three myths that the Torah speaks of the duty of education concerning blood, insects, and ritual impurity.

The Talmud points out that in biblical times the consumption of blood was commonplace. Society literally "wallowed in blood" as a dietary staple. To forbid the consumption of blood in 1300 BCE Canaan was akin to, say, forbidding hamburgers in 21st century America or sushi at a Bar Mitzvah.

The eating of blood was a deeply entrenched habit. The Torah’s message in instructing adults to educate children concerning blood teaches us: Don’t surrender your duty to educate and inspire because you think that people are addicted and cannot change. Never believe that kids entrenched in foolish or bad habits are lost. Don’t underestimate the power of education.

Today it may not be “blood,” but some other ideaIn these situations too, never ive up. You never know which insight or story, or which classroom experience or memory, will someday propel your child or student towards positive change.

Why? Because every one of our children, our students, every single Jew, in his or her truest core, wants to live a refined, wholesome, and happy life. Each child, even the one who seems brute and unmoved, even the one who seems addicted and entrenched, deep down craves to connect to G-d and live a life true to his own soul. Our job as mentors is not to get caught up in the external shells, but to speak to their “insides,” their depths, their holiness, their idealism.

The Talmud further says that in most cultures insects were "repulsive to the human soul."  If someone eats them, it can mean two things: He is so brute and desensitized that he welcomes any food into his body, or he is so angry with G-d that he will do something repulsive just to spite Him. Now, if a person has descended to such dietary degradation, displaying such brute-ness, apathy, or anger, is it not futile to educate him?

Here, the Torah chooses to convey our duty and privilege to influence even the youngster who may be willing to east insects. Through this choice, the Torah teaches us to never see a student as beyond the pale.

In a 2003 address Professor Alan Dershowitz related:

About 15 or 20 years ago, I had the chutzpah—in the worst sense of the word—to write an arrogant letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

I had read in the paper that the Lubavitch movement was honoring Jesse Helms, and there was no man in America I despised more than Jesse Helms. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he stood for everything I opposed, including being strongly anti-Israel.

I wrote a letter to the Rebbe saying, in essence, "How can you honor a man who stands for everything opposing Jewish values in America?"

I received a very, very respectful letter back from the Rebbe; a letter that I cherish for its content. He lectured me, but in the nicest way, telling me that you never, ever give up on somebody. Today Jesse Helms may be against Israel, but tomorrow, if we know how to speak to and approach him, maybe he will turn out to be a champion of Israel.

And I have to tell you, I had my doubts about it, but as they say, the rest is history. Although I still disagree with Jesse Helms on many issues, when it comes to Israel, he has become our champion!

Finally, the laws of ritual impurity challenge our conception that our kids are unready for truths that transcend them.

Jamie Robert Vollmer wrote this story:

I stood before an auditorium filled with outraged teachers who were becoming angrier by the minute. My speech had consumed their precious 90 minutes of in-service. Their initial icy glares had become restless agitation. You could cut the hostility with a knife.

I represented a group of business people dedicated to improving public schools. I was an executive at an ice cream company that became famous in the mid-1980's when People Magazine chose our blueberry as the “Best Ice Cream in America.”

I was convinced of two things. First, public schools needed to change; they were archaic selecting and sorting mechanisms designed for the industrial age and out of step with the needs of our emerging “knowledge society”. Second, educators were a major part of the problem: they resisted change, hunkered down in their feathered nests, protected by tenure and shielded by a bureaucratic monopoly. They needed to look to business. We knew how to produce quality. Zero defects! TQM! Continuous improvement!

In retrospect, the speech was perfectly balanced—equal parts ignorance and arrogance.

As soon as I finished, a woman’s hand shot up. She appeared polite, pleasant—she was, in fact, a razor-edged, veteran high school English teacher who had been waiting to unload.

She began quietly, “We are told, sir, that you manage a company that makes good ice cream.”

I smugly replied, “Best ice cream in America, ma’am.”

“How nice,” she said. “Is it rich and smooth?”

“16% butterfat,” I crowed.

“Premium ingredients?” she inquired.

“Super-premium! Nothing but triple A.” I was on a roll. I never saw the next line coming.

“Mr. Vollmer,” she said, leaning forward with a wicked eyebrow raised to the sky, “when you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?”

In the silence of that room, I could hear the trap snap… I was dead meat, but I wasn’t going to lie.

“I send them back.”

“That’s right!” she barked, “and we can never send back our blueberries. We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant. We take them with ADHD, junior rheumatoid arthritis, and English as their second language. We take them all! Every one! And that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it’s not a business. It’s school!”

In an explosion, all 290 teachers, principals, bus drivers, aides, custodians and secretaries jumped to their feet and yelled, “Yeah! Blueberries! Blueberries!”

And so began my long transformation….

A man once wrote: Come with me to a third grade classroom.

There is a nine-year-old kid sitting at his desk, and all of a sudden, there is a puddle between his feet and the front of his pants are wet. He thinks his heart is going to stop because he cannot possibly imagine how this has happened. It's never happened before, and he knows that when the boys find out he will never hear the end of it. When the girls find out, they'll never speak to him again as long as he lives.

The boy believes his heart is going to he puts his head down and prays, "Dear God, this is an emergency! I need help now! Five minutes from now I'm dead meat."

He looks up from his prayer and sees the teacher coming toward him with a look in her eyes that says he has been discovered.

As the teacher walks his way, Susie, a classmate, is carrying a goldfish bowl filled with water. Susie trips in front of the teacher and inexplicably dumps the bowl of water in the boy's lap.

The boy pretends to be angry, but all the while is saying to himself, "Thank you, thank you, Lord!"

Now, instead of being the object of ridicule, the boy is the object of sympathy.

The teacher rushes him downstairs and gives him gym shorts to wear. All the other children are on their hands and knees cleaning up around his desk. The sympathy is wonderful.

But as life would have it, the ridicule that should have been his has been transferred to someone else: Susie.

She tries to help, but they tell her to go. You've done enough, klutz!"

Finally, at the end of the day, as they are waiting for the bus, the boy walks over to Susie and whispers, "You did that on purpose, didn't you?" Susie whispers back, "I wet my pants once too."

Yvette Rivera, a long time teacher, wrote this story about her experience as a teacher:

I set out to teach junior high summer school—not the ideal choice for a first time teacher, but I was young and enthusiastic. My students were a rough bunch; a combination of every school in the district’s worst of the worst. Still, I was positive that I could make a difference. By the fourth week of summer school I had given up on making a difference and just hoped that at least some of these kids could pass the course. Of course, no class is complete without a ringleader. Apparently “John” found pleasure in just driving people crazy. There was no logical reason for his behavior. He was an extra challenge in a room full of challenges.

One day John asked me if I liked CK1 perfume. I said yes, not knowing where the conversation was going. He told me that his parents had had an argument and his father bought the perfume to make amends. He said his mother did not like the perfume and she did not want it, so he gave it to me. I accepted the gift from him after being sure he had gotten permission to give it away. A week later I was on the phone with John’s father. We were discussing John’s behavior again. His father started off by saying, “Since my wife passed away,” and before he could finish, I stopped him and asked him to explain. John’s mother had died in the beginning of that year from cancer. The story about the perfume was true, but it had happened almost a year earlier.

John’s father insisted I keep the perfume, stating his son must have had a special reason for giving it to me. John and I talked about his mother, but we never discussed the gift. On the last day of summer school, John, who never liked to show feelings or emotions, came back to my room to say goodbye several times. On the final trip to my room, John hugged me a long time and said, “Thank you Ms. Rivera. I love you.” Those words have changed my life forever. Those were words I knew that child had not said in a very long time, but he felt that he could tell me. As I waved goodbye and assured him that I loved him too, I knew that I would never forget John. How can you forget the student that shows you that teaching is more than just grades and books? Teaching is about those life altering moments you never expect. Teaching is about touching a student’s life and having a student touch yours.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Lag Bomer,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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