Get Thyself a Student: Thoughts on Teaching — and Hope

Our son, Erik Thiede, looked uncharacteristically baffled. “I can’t take it in,” he said. “I’m just that random guy, wolfing salad down in the cafeteria… working out at the gym.”

Erik had just accepted a position as a professor of chemistry at Cornell University’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. He was standing in a liminal space, one we regularly encounter in Tanakh. Someone is suddenly called to a position they aren’t prepared for, that they didn’t see coming, that they hadn’t imagined. Or, perhaps, like Joseph, they’ve dreamed their future for years and still are taken unawares when it arrives.

Last week, as I was reading T’tzaveh, I imagined Aaron thinking “I’m just a random guy…”  I imagined the oddity of authority, the fear of the power that is literally in-vested in the clothing YHVH invents and decrees for Aaron, now to become Israel’s High Priest.

“I was just taking a good, long walk around the camp…!”

There is so much said in Tanakh, in rabbinic texts, in Chassidic stories about the spaces between being, seemingly, a “random” individual and taking a some position of authority.

In Exodus 28:12, YHVH commands Aaron to wear “stones for remembrance of the Israelite people, whose names Aaron shall carry.”   In a tender reading of this verse, Hayyim of Czernowitz (1760-1816) wrote that Aaron was to carry Israel’s names on his shoulders “like a father carrying a young child on his shoulders to keep the child safe” (B’er Mayyim Hayyim).

For years Erik and I have talked about what makes a wise and caring teacher, what is needed to mentor others safely and well. We spoke about student fears, insecurities, and anxieties. Where else are you judged every single week of your life by teachers who don’t always know your name, let alone something of your heart, your soul, or your life experience?

I think of Aaron – his mistakes and his grace. His ability to walk through a field of death, tending to his people. His silence when his sons Nadav and Avihu die – and perhaps only because they were too excited, too hopeful, too interested in serving YHVH to know just how dangerous that service could be?

Aaron’s work was fraught with danger.

Truly: so is the work of teacher. We live in a world in which our students are increasingly challenged. They suffer from emotional and mental distress at much higher levels, according to our data. They are financially strapped. States across the country are attacking efforts to make college education more inclusive and friendly for people of color. Rampant legal assaults on LGBTQ+ individuals are likewise making their way through various legislatures. Teachers have roles to play, jobs to do, to help keep our students safe.

Even through his doctoral and postdoctoral work, Erik mentored younger scholars. He loves teaching, mentoring. His group lab page, which he launched just in the past days, says it all. Under “Lab Values,” he wrote:

We are curious. Science is about learning, not knowing. We are always looking for new ways of thinking, and are comfortable showing that we don’t understand everything. We are open. Science is a team sport. To help out teammates, we take pains to share our science freely amongst the scientific community and with the world. We are caring. Doing good science requires delving deep into the unknown: an experience both exciting, and terrifying. On our journey, we celebrate each other’s achievements and support each other through setbacks. We are inclusive. We actively strive to make science a place where everyone thrives, no matter their background and identity. We resist oppression of any kind, including but not limited to sexism, classism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and xenophobia. Although we may not complete this work within our lifetimes, we refuse to desist from it.”

Today, Erik is traveling back to Ithaca to meet and greet incoming graduate students. This morning, I reminded him of that famous mandate in Pirkei Avot: “get thyself a teacher” (1:6). I joked that we needed a version from imot:

“Shulamit Sapir said: ‘And get thyself students, to keep thee humble, considerate, understanding, and kind. And to remind thyself how damn scary this whole thing is.’”

We are all just that person wolfing down the salad, working out in the gym. Hopefully, we are also doing our level best to do a kindness to and for this broken world.

Doing so makes us anything but random individuals. YHVH has in-vested in us.

We, then, must invest in the world.

This drash is dedicated to Erik Henning Thiede, whose heart is as open as his mind.

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