“Learning by Teaching”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In the opening verse of parashat Bo, G-d tells Moses that He has hardened the hearts of Pharaoh and his servants, so that G-d will be able to show His signs [the plagues] to those in Pharaoh’s midst.

Our rabbis frequently emphasize that the primary purpose of the plagues is to discredit the Egyptian deities and uproot the Egyptian people’s fallacious belief in their powers. As we have noted previously (Va’eira 5765-2005), the Abarbanel (Spanish statesman, philosopher and commentator, 1437-1508) emphasizes that each set of three plagues comes to teach another lesson about G-d’s nature and power, and to underscore the powerlessness of the pagan deities.

However, if we read the second verse of this parasha carefully, we learn that there is an additional purpose that the plagues serve. The verse in Exodus 10:2 reads: “Oo’l’mahn t’sah’payr b’awz’nay vin’chah oo’ven bin’chah, ayt ah’sher hit’ah’lahl’tee b’Mitzrayim, v’et o’toh’tai ah’sher sahm’tee vahm, vee’dah’tem kee ah’nee Hashem.” The Torah states that the purpose of the plagues is that you, the Jewish people, may relate in the ears of your children and your children’s children how I [G-d] made a mockery of Egypt, and all about My signs that I placed upon them, so that you may know that I am the Lord.

We see that, in addition to the message to the Egyptians and the idolatrous believers of that time, the Ten Plagues were intended to communicate a most important message to the Jewish people as well. Every Jewish parent in Egypt, who will undoubtedly be impressed by the plagues, must communicate this message to their children and to the generations that follow. It is not enough for the Egyptians to know that the Al-mighty is the true G-d and that belief in idiolatry is fallacious. It is not enough for the Jewish people to recognize the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. What must happen is that this message be effectively communicated to the next generation. After all, what value is there to a faith system that is not capable of inspiring the generations that follow?

As vital as this aforementioned message is, the syntax and structure of Exodus 10:2, however, communicate a number of additional important messages. Grand Rabbi Yehoshua of Belz, (1825-1894, 2nd Belzer Rebbe, author of Ohel Yehoshua,) sees in the particular structure of the verse a most important message for teachers and parents. The beginning of the verse states that the People of Israel are instructed to teach their children about G-d’s saving power. The verse however, does not go on to say that they (the children) may know that I am the Lord. To the contrary, it says that you may know–that you, the parents, may know. Only if you yourselves remember, understand and truly believe that the Lord is G-d, will you be able to transmit this belief effectively to others. Clearly, the best teachers must be firm believers themselves.

Another message that may be gleaned from this verse is that the process of teaching is itself a particularly effective way of firming up one’s own belief. When a teacher is faced with a classroom full of inquiring minds, that teacher will feel the need to prepare diligently so that all his/her responses will be well reasoned and intellectually compelling. It becomes difficult in such situations, if not impossible, to simply “wing it” or to dismissively say to students, “Trust me.” And of course, no teacher who is truly worth the title teacher or pedagogue will ever say, “Questioning is not permitted.”

This important pedagogic message is often encountered in real life when Jews who are searching encounter Jews who are knowledgeable, who have been observant all of their lives. Inviting searching Jews to one’s Shabbat table poses a real challenge for the host family. The hosts can not simply rush through the Shabbat meal with an abundance of pedestrian talk. There needs to be a real sense of the sanctity of Shabbat, zemirot must be sung, words of Torah need to be heard, and of course no business talk or gossip. The impact of such a meal on the host family is often as great, if not greater, than the impact on the guests.

There is no more effective method of learning than through teaching. That is the reason why Jews have a responsibility to see themselves as pedagogues, teachers and ambassadors of Judaism. As the Talmud states (Pesachim 112a): More than the calf wishes to suck, the cow desires to give milk. The benefits that redound to the teachers, educators, and pedagogues is often far greater than the benefits enjoyed by the students.

May you be blessed.