We are in the season of saluting parents. We have Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. We are also in the season of saluting education, as the school year comes to a close and we thank our teachers for all that they do. It is with this in mind that I want to look at the following text, a text that at one time perplexed me:
The lost object of a person’s parent versus the lost object of a person’s teacher, his teacher’s object comes first (is searched for first). This is because his parents brought him into this world, but his teacher — who taught him wisdom — will bring him into the world to come. But if his parent is a sage, then he comes first.
If a person’s parent and his teacher each carry a load, then the person is required to first relieve the load of his teacher, and then his parent.
If a person’s parent and a person’s teacher were both in captivity, he is to redeem his teacher first, then redeem his parent. If his parent is a sage, then he redeems his parent first. (Talmud Bavli, Tractate Bava Metzia 33a)
This text has always left me feeling a little lost. I have never been able to understand why I should redeem my 6th grade English teacher, who was constantly cruel, before I should redeem my mother or father, who have constantly bestowed their love upon me. If my teacher was to come first, then why in the Eseret Ha-Dibrot, the Ten Commandments, does it command honoring parents and not teachers? Could it be that as the text states, my teachers are securing my life in the world to come, and that is far greater than having given me earthly life?
I discovered the meaning of this text in the months prior to my wedding five years ago. Jewish tradition teaches that a bride and groom are to visit the graves of their ancestors to invite them to the wedding. My wife and I listed our deceased relatives, and I instinctively added the name of my Hebrew school teacher, Mr. Wolin. I could not leave him out of the wedding; he helped to make me the person that I am. I stood at his grave and wept that I was never there to say goodbye, and that I would be honored to have him be there on that day; in other words, I equated him with my relatives. He was just as special to me as my grandparents, and my grandparents were just as important to me as my parents.
Last night, I saw an e-mail that informed me of the death of another teacher of mine. Rabbi Henry Kraus was ordained before World War II and served a large congregation in Hungary. He survived Auschwitz and went back to his native Hungary after the war. He served as the chief rabbi of that country under the Communist government for some years, and ultimately emigrated with his wife to the U.S. When he was in seminary, he learned Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, Arabic and more —in addition to the Hungarian and Yiddish he already spoke. When he arrived here he was forced to learn yet another language, English.
Rabbi Kraus would chat with me each time we would drive to the hospital for him to do his chaplaincy rounds. He still drove short distances, but could not drive the 25 miles each way for this journey. I was inspired by the fact that this man, who had lived such an incredible life. still insisted on working when most were enjoying retirement. Often I would go along and learn from him. He was one of the greatest influences I had in school to keep going when the learning was tough.
Both of these men, Mr. Wolin and Rabbi Kraus, were Holocaust survivors, and both of them were my teachers. I learned so much from these two men — not necessarily the subjects of classes, but about faith and about life. I could never understand losing everything and still believing. I could never understand surviving Auschwitz and still believing.
This might sound odd coming from a rabbi, but I struggled a great deal with this. And both of these men taught me with their lives that the crimes of the Nazis and others were not the acts of God, but the reaction of humankind to these crimes was the work of God. God was not in the evil, God was in the good.
As the Talmud says, parents provide their offspring with life in this world and indeed teachers provide them with life in the world to come. We all have teachers like these amazing men. As we approach the end of another school year, we now have the time to say thank you to all of those teachers who have spent so much time setting us up for our lives in this world and the next.
At this time of the year, we can thank the teachers who taught us 2+2=4, how to spell Mississippi, the words of the Rambam, our Torah portions, and so much more. They will never take the place of our parents, but they play such a central role in everything that we are.
It is a sad commentary on our society today that teachers are so underappreciated. Look at the words of the Rambam based on Pirkei Avot on the subject: “There is no honor higher than that which is due to a teacher, no reverence more profound than that which should be bestowed on a teacher.
The sages said: “The reverence of your teacher should be like the reverence for Heaven.” (Rambam Mishneh Torah Hilchot Talmud Torah 5:11 from Pirkei Avot 4:12).
Our teachers are one of our greatest resources. Their commitment to our children and the future of our world is never-ending. In fact, I would stipulate that not only do teachers teach us wisdom and give us life in the world to come, they teach us wisdom to ensure that our world has a world to come in the near future. In other words, at the end of the school year, do not forget to thank your teachers.