Bamidbar: Where do you teach?

This week I attended a university professor’s retirement party.   The guests were mainly either his grey-haired colleagues and former students (now professors at other institutions) or his other-color-haired current students.  

Having only grey, it was natural that I was repeatedly asked during the schmoozing hour,  “Where do you teach?”  I explained that although I do teach, I don’t do so in academia, for money, nor even in the subjects of my secular studies.  Rather, as a rabbi, I teach informally by giving occasional classes on Jewish subjects and writing this weekly Torah commentary. 

Thinking about it now, I wish that I had anticipated the question.  Then I would have remembered what I was told in rabbinical school: that, like Hillel, my most important teaching would be done “al regal ahat,” while “standing on one foot,” i.e., in one-on-one, spur of the moment conversation in a hallway, parking lot, or in social gatherings, just as I was then at the party.  I would have quipped, “I try to teach everywhere … every moment is a potential teachable moment!” 

In this week’s portion, Bamidbar, the Torah states:

“These are the generations of Aharon and Moshe on the day that G-d spoke with Moshe on Mount Sinai.  And these are the names of the sons of Aharon: Nodov the firstborn, Avihu, Elazar, and Itamar.”  (Bamidbar 3:1-2).  

Strikingly, although the Torah expressly refers to the generations (or “line”) of both Aharon and Moshe, it proceeds to list only Aharon’s sons, even though we know from Exodus that Moshe also had sons, Gershom and Eliezer!   

Since the Torah ignores Moses’ sons, why does this verse also mention his descendants?  According to the Talmud, Moses’ descendants were everyone to whom he taught Torah.  From this the principle derived that whoever teaches his neighbor’s son Torah is considered as if he has given birth to him!  (Sanhedrin 19b, Eruvin 54b).  

According to the school of Hillel, “A person should teach Torah to everybody.  For there have been many sinners who were taught Torah, and their descendants were righteous and pious.”  That is, not only were they themselves transformed, but their children and children’s children were also righteous.  (Pliskin, Love Your Neighbor, citing Avos D’Reb Noson 2:9 and Binyan Yehoshua, ibid.)  

We are all required to each Torah.  The familiar Sh’ma and V’ahavta prayers (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) enjoin us to “Impress [these words] upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up…inscribe them on the doorposts of our house and on your gates.”   In a word, teach them.   

Combining these themes, we are all obligated to teach Torah, and by doing so, those whom we teach become our “descendants.”  Not only is rabbinic ordination not required to teach Torah (although it helps!), the mere fact of being Jewish obligates us all to teach it – everywhere, all the time.   We live on through every Jew whom we teach. 

Whatever your level of formal Jewish education, you already know plenty of Torah:  Love your neighbor as yourself!  Don’t stand idly by when others are in distress!  Pursue justice!  Don’t gossip!  Don’t bear grudges!  Don’t steal! Don’t commit adultery! Be holy! Treat Shabbat as a special day.  And so on.  There’s so much more to learn, but your obligation is always to teach, teach, teach -- by word and deed!

So, where do you teach??? 

Shabbat shalom. 

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb