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Those Who Can, Teach

Those Who Can, Teach

I’m not a rabbi, I never studied in yeshiva, and there’s so much I don’t know. So why am I teaching Torah?

by

I’m almost 60 and I just started teaching Torah. I never expected to do this – but now I see that I can. In fact, I think I must. Let me explain.

I did not start out on the path of Torah. Growing up in Queens in the 1950s, my upbringing was secular: no God, no shul, no Shabbat. I wondered what my friends did in Hebrew school, but my parents didn’t send me, so that was that.

And that could have been the end of my Jewish journey. But in 1991, I became a father. Soon enough my four-year-old son was asking questions. Such questions! He’s a deep thinker and his questions exposed how little I knew: “Daddy, how old is the world? Will it exist forever?” Gulp!

I needed to learn – and quickly – so I could answer him. I started taking classes, and then more classes. Now I had questions of my own that needed answers! I was inspired by Torah tapes from the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation, classes in the Florence Melton Mini-School, and articles at Aish.com.

The more I learned, the more I wanted to know.

That also could have been the end of the journey. But the more I learned, the more I wanted to know.

I began learning with a study partner through Partners in Torah. We learned the weekly Torah portion, then some Talmud, then some classic works on spiritual growth. Later, I found a second study partner, and then a third (including a 5 am weekly phone session with Rabbi Jack Kalla from Aish.com). My study partners were remarkably patient and generous, and the hours I spent learning with them were the high points of the week.

Then my shul launched a new study group on Shabbos afternoons to learn Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), the beautiful tractate of the Mishna dealing with ethical living and improving one’s character. I had never even heard of Pirkei Avot, but I already loved textual study, so I volunteered to lead the new group.

For the next two years, we slowly made our way through Pirkei Avot, covering one mishna each week. I prepared by studying Ethics from Sinai and other commentaries in English translation.

We made a siyyum (festive meal) when we completed the tractate. I felt a sense of accomplishment from being involved in something so meaningful. And that (last time, I promise) also could have been the end of the journey.

Can I Do More?

This past December I heard a powerful talk by Rabbi Shlomo Farhi at the Aish HaTorah Partners Conference. He mentioned a song with the chorus, “Avraham, are we the children that you dreamed of?” Would our forefather Abraham be pleased with the lives we are living today? The question unsettled something at my core.

Rabbi Farhi continued: When we pray, we often refer to God as “Elokay Yaakov,” the God of Jacob. Great, but what about us? What have we done to make Him our God, too? And is it enough?

Well, that did it. Wiping away tears, I tried to think about what else I could do. Slowly, it dawned on me that I can teach other Jews what I know, which is Pirkei Avot.

So I thought about the Jews I know who are not involved in some kind of regular learning. Then I asked four of them if they would be willing to learn with me by phone once a week. To my surprise, all four said “yes,” and they actually seemed excited about it!

Then I made a brief business visit to the home of a man I barely know. As I was leaving, I saw a baseball cap near the door that said, “Maimonides.” I asked about the cap.

He explained that he studied the Rambam’s “Guide to the Perplexed” back in high school and loved it. So I took a deep breath and asked if he’d like to learn with me. Once again, to my surprise, the answer was “yes.”

Related Article: Mutual Responsibility

So now I learn weekly with five individuals, and they stimulate me with great questions, and I work hard to find good answers. It’s my way of grappling with the challenge that Rabbi Farhi posed.

But this raises a question: Who am I to teach Torah? I’m not a rabbi, I never studied in yeshiva, and there’s so much I don’t know.

Here is the answer given by the Chofetz Chaim.

At Agudath Yisrael's first meeting in the early 1930s, the Chofetz Chaim urged everyone to fulfill their obligation to do whatever they could to save their fellow Jews from the forces of assimilation that were raging through Europe during the era of "isms." His urging met with protest. "How we can tell others to do what we haven't perfected ourselves?"

The Chofetz Chaim responded with a parable. A traveler was invited by a wealthy man to have a cup of tea. When the guest looked into his cup, he saw sediment that had settled on the bottom. "Where is your water from?" he asked. When told that the town's water came from a local river, he advised his host that the town needed a filtration system. The system was installed, and thereafter, the water was crystal clear. It worked well until a huge fire broke out some time later and burned down half the town.

The next time the traveler was in town, he heard what had happened and inquired, "Couldn't you put out the fire?" The people replied, "It took a long time for the water to work its way through the filtration system, and there wasn't enough filtered water available to quickly control the flames."

"Fools!" said the traveler. "You don't need filtered water to put out a fire!"

The Chofetz Chaim went on to explain to those who resisted his call to outreach, "There is a fire raging in Klal Yisrael. We must grab whatever water we have and use it to douse the flames. Every Jew, on whatever level he or she is on, has to use his own capabilities to help extinguish the raging flames around us.”

The question is not, “How can I teach?” The real question is: “How can I not teach?”

Thank you, Rabbi Farhi.

This article is dedicated in loving memory of the author's father, Reuven ben Ya'akov z''l.

Click here if you would like a free study partner to learn with you over the phone.

Published: January 14, 2012


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Visitor Comments: 8

(6) Anonymous, January 17, 2012 4:19 PM

On an everyday level

Are some turned off, they don't want to teach Torah. Look, you do whether you think you are. Someone ask you what your opinion is about what was in the news, you have the opportunity to teach them Torah. You answer, no you are not quoting a verse, you don't say "this is what the Torah says" though your thoughts are in line with Torah and you answer. That person, has just taught Torah. You've been to shul, later that week someone calls you, and you are repeating what the Rabbi said, you are teaching Torah. Your in a conversation about Israel, the need arises to defend Israel, you are teaching Torah. Someone is reading a book about the Holocaust for the first time and shares with you what the book is about, you have read several articles about the Holocaust on Aish, and share what you have learned from them, you are teaching Torah. You read Torah, you listen to Rabbis teach Torah, you read Jewish literature, you visit Aish, even your time in shul and that's it, many are teaching Torah without thinking about it. For those turned off by thinking they don't want to teach any formal classes on Torah, you already are in your everyday conversations without thinking about it. Every teacher has a teacher. If you have a teacher, you can become a teacher. You learn more as you go. Having a study partner, two heads are better than one. Their view, their insights can enlighten your own. A study phone partner, can be the beginning to something bigger. It's one on one, you build up your confidence with one person sharing what you know. You deal with the challenges of someone else that doesn't agree with you sometimes. That's a hurdle to conquer, for there will always be someone out there who doesn't agree with you. You learn to be strong, in the face of opposition. You learn to look from all angles, for better understanding. You learn to communicate Torah teaching, Torah values, in turn it helps you to live by the Torah, the Torah becomes your own words.

(5) Silky, January 16, 2012 4:40 AM

If I can, ANYONE can

When someone from Aish approched me to become a mentor/teacher for Partners in Torah, I said it was absurd. I was out of school over 20 years and I was always a bad student in my Jewish studies. The woman asked if I could read English. I said yes. She said there are so many good English sources, that my inability to read Rashi wasn't important. So, here it is almost 10 years later. My Partner and I are going strong. She says she has gained so much but I have also gained SO MUCH. People, there is a fire. Put it out. If not for your brother or sister Jew, then for yourself. If I could, so can you. Thank you, Aish HaTorah.

(4) Anonymous, January 16, 2012 3:30 AM

teaching

On one occasion i was challenged sarcastically by a Rabbi if i wanted to teach Chumash, the sixth day. I shocked him with a ' Yes ". He spent the next week in complete distraction and worry, contacting me sevearl times, but i would not return his calls. The die was cast, and besides he was most frightened that i would show him up , which of course i did because he is not particularly blessed with teaching skills. Most rabbis are not willing to give up their role as teacher. Some are not willing to give up even the slightest role. The upshot of it is that for most rabbis the phrase is: Those who do , do Those who cannot do, teach Those who cannot teach, teach teachers. This is not sour grapes. It is what it is, no big deal. We do not need rabbis to lead us. As far as i am concerned that is what is advocated in this article.

Miriam, January 17, 2012 3:31 PM

Your Rabbi is unusual. Get a different one.

Most Rabbis are more than happy to have congregants join them on the teaching end. So what are Rabbis for, if congregants can teach classes? Rabbis are there to lead, to give advice, to be a spiritual father, so to speak.

Anonymous, January 17, 2012 3:37 PM

We would have no Torah today without the Rabbis

G-d specifically made the Torah explainable only with the Torah Sh'Baal Peh, the Torah passed down from Sinai, by heart, from father to son, and taught by the Rabbis. Thank G-d, today we have many books, written by the Rabbis, that makes us able to understand through reading these books, but there is no true Judaism without Torah Rabbis. Interestingly, if you read up on Torah books specifically written by one Rabbi, he can be considered your rebbi, your teacher, even though you've never met him and perhaps he's passed on. Rabbi Yehuda Zev Manchester considered himself a student of the Chofetz Chaim although he met him only at one point, for a few weeks. He read his Torah books so often and so thoroughly, and his teachings guided his life to the point that he called him "my rebbi", my teacher. And it is taught that in the afterlife, such a rebbi would recognize you as his student! Through reading his books!

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