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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Stand By Your Blessing

 “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it.
Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it.
Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.”
Pirkei Avot / Sayings of Our Fathers
5:22

Simchat Torah, which means “rejoicing in the Torah,” is an annual love fest demonstrating our abiding affection for the challenging, beautiful, sweet scroll of our stories.

We have a special tradition for Simchat Torah at Temple Or Olam. As we roll the Torah back to the beginning, I ask members of our congregation to stand by the column of their choice in the book of Genesis. Then I look. I scan the column for the blessing they have chosen, though they have no idea where it is.

To be frank, I don’t either.

Nevertheless, some of the letters shine and glisten at me; some words emerge from the parchment. The letters of Torah turn and turn and turn again. I read them: They are telling me something about the soul before me.

This past year, a young man in our congregation stood before a dry text indeed. One person begat, the next did the same. I read the series, despairing of message or purpose. Shem begot Arpachshad who begot Shelah who begat Eber. Sixteen verses later, I read the final lines introducing Terah and his sons: Avram, Nahor, and Haran.

I started grinning.

“What?” asked the young man.

I looked up at him. I’ve known him for many years, and watched with increasing joy as he has taken one firm step after another toward this year’s planned beit din. There, I know, three rabbis will surely and joyfully acknowledge what we in our congregation already know (he’s Jewish!).

He had chosen the column that introduces Avram’s birth.

What did Avram do? Take his heart in his hands and journey towards a different life. What is this young man doing? He is taking his heart in his hands and journeying towards a different life.

I went along the table. A young teenage girl stood by a column that began with Sarah’s invitation for everyone to laugh with her, to share her joy at the miracle of Isaac’s birth. This young girl, I know, was born only after many long years of painful waiting and hoping on her parents’ part. “You are a particular blessing,” I say. “Ask your parents to tell you the whole story sometime if they haven’t yet.” Her mom is standing nearby. She laughs. Like Sarah?

I moved to a congregant in her seventies who has recently been celebrating her freedom – after many decades – from a certain family member’s demands. She pointed to the scroll, to the passage that describes how Joseph’s family sold him into slavery. “That’s my story,” she says, when I tell her.

Torah is so rich I could probably find something in every column for every congregant. Laws of probability, coincidences – you can throw them all at me while I try to explain how magical it feels to discover Torah within the souls of my congregants.

Torah is terrible, rich and frightening. It is tender and it is violent. It is often perplexing. It is real. It is human.

Maybe this ritual of ours is really about how much I love my congregation. Since I know the people of Temple Or Olam, I can read their stories in the ones before me on the scroll. Sarah and Jacob and Joseph are Stacey and Nick and Susan.

The unfurling parchment is ancient and magical.  I turn it, and turn it, and turn it again, looking for those I love, those before me, those about me.

We are black letters on white parchment, the strokes and lines of a human endeavor, of human striving. Everything is in that.

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