Last week, my daughter and three of her friends spoke to a group of aspiring rabbis and cantors about issues of mental health and spiritual wellbeing among teens.
It was a rare opportunity for a roomful of adults to simply listen and learn from teenagers, who were thoughtful, reflective, and remarkably honest about their inner lives – and willing to share what they want from the adults in their communities, particularly those in positions of educational and religious leadership.
Their responses to questions were subtle and searching. They made no claims to having easy answers, but at least one message came across loud and clear: Forget anything formulaic.
Formal programs on mental health awareness can be useful, they said – some are better, some are worse — but what they need, above all, are adults who have the capacity to be present and engaged, adults who are willing to be real with them, trusted adults in whom they can confide and with whom they can have substantive, ongoing relationships.
For those of us in the room – all of whom are involved in the process of teaching and learning — their observations were a poignant reminder about the real work at the heart of all education. The facile and formulaic will only take you so far. Teaching, mentoring, and providing guidance and support to young people who are trying to find their way in a complex world requires sustained presence, patience, persistence, and compassion. The same is true for learners at any stage of life.
This is precisely how Rabbi Akiva, remembered as one of the most loving teachers of our tradition, understands the opening verse of this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim. This parasha is the Torah’s first legal code, and it is dense with laws governing daily relations between human beings. It follows on the heels of the great revelation at Sinai. We have now left behind the grandeur of that moment – the thunder and lightning, the shofar blasts, the smoking mountain. We have reached the other side of the mountain, where the daily work of creating holy community begins. It is complicated and arduous work.
The portion is introduced with these words: “V’eleh hamishpatim asher tasim lifneihem—These are the laws which you should place before them” (Exodus 21:1). Over millennia, this modest verse has become the occasion for rich rabbinic reflection on the nature of education. It has prompted commentators to ask not what are the laws governing human relationships, but how, really, are they to be taught and learned?
In an early midrash on this verse, Rabbi Akiva makes the following observation. “If the portion had begun [like many other sections of biblical law], ‘Speak to the children of Israel and say to them’, then I might get the sense that I only need to say it once.” Rather, Rabbi Akiva suggests, God wants Moses to understand that a teacher must repeat things once, twice, three times, four times – as many times as it takes – for the student to truly internalize and understand.
I can hear the voice of the teacher at our children’s daycare cooperative (a wonderful, wise woman who helped us through some of the most challenging moments of those pre-school years) saying to us again and again, “Just because you have to repeat yourself doesn’t mean you – or your children — are doing something wrong. Repetition is part of the learning process.”
How generously and gently she embodied that wisdom as a teacher – repeating for us, more times than I can count, what we as parents needed to grasp – that learning requires repetition. It was only years later that the irony became apparent to me.
Rabbi Akiva understands repetition not as an act of formulaic, rote teaching, but as an act of love. The teacher who is willing to repeat a teaching as many times as it takes is a teacher who cares not only about the Torah she is transmitting, but about the student she is teaching.
Rabbi Akiva goes on to connect the words that open this portion–“these are the laws which you should place before them” (tasim lifneihem)–to a verse from Deuteronomy: “Teach it to the children of Israel, and place it in their mouths” (sima b’fihem). A simple linguistic play on the Hebrew words in these two verses becomes the occasion for reflection on the process of teaching and learning.
What at first appears to be a technical introduction to a series of Torah laws is transformed into an extraordinarily tender metaphor for the role of teacher. Moses, it turns out, is learning from God what it means to teach. “You shall place these laws before them,” says Rabbi Akiva. “Set them like a table that is fully laid out before them.” Many centuries later, the medieval commentator Rashi picks up on the same image, saying: “The Holy Blessed One said to Moses: Don’t think for a moment that you will be able to say, ‘I will teach them a chapter or a law two or three times . . . and I will not go to the trouble of explaining to them the reasons behind the thing and its full meaning. Rather, you should offer these laws to them like a ‘set table’ — ready to be eaten.”
Consider, for a moment, the act of setting a table, as a metaphor for teaching.
It is an act of preparation. What will I be serving and how will I make it attractive and appealing?
It is an act of invitation. Who will be at my table, and how can I make them feel comfortable and welcome?
It is an act of loving attention. What are the simple touches that will make my guests want to linger at the table, enjoying each other’s company and a beautiful and nourishing meal?
In a culture that speeds up just about everything, the image of “the set table” is a powerful reminder that good teaching can’t be rushed. Our children don’t just need to be fed more information. They need to be invited to the table, again and again, by trusted adults who have the patience, compassion and time to notice who they are and what’s going on in their lives.