“Reverence for Learning in Jewish Tradition”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tisah, we read of the fateful sin of the Jewish people with the Golden Calf. The sin of the Golden Calf is considered so grievous, that it eventually contributes to the Al-mighty’s decision to ban from entering into the land of Israel all male citizens of Israel who were alive at that time and were 20 years of age or above.

When Moses came down from the mountain, after receiving the two tablets from G-d, and heard and saw the enthusiastic celebration of the people for the Golden Calf, he smashed the tablets. Dramatically stopping the idolatrous festivities, Moses calls on his brethren, the tribe of Levi, to exact vengeance upon the leaders of the rebellion, and 3,000 Israelites perish in the confrontation.

Moses begs G-d to forgive the Jewish people. G-d accedes to his request, but reminds Moses that He will take the sin of the Golden Calf into account together with future sins, which He does after the sin of the scouts who come back with an evil report concerning Israel.

To distance himself from the sinful people, Moses moves his tent outside the camp and proceeds to hold court from that location. Scripture tells us in Exodus 33:8 that, despite the rebelliousness of the people, whenever Moses would go out to his tent, “Yah’koo’moo kol ha’am, v’nitz’voo ish peh’tach ah’hah’lo,” the entire nation would stand at the entrance of their tents, and gaze upon Moses until he reached his tent. Standing for Moses was an obvious gesture of respect for the leader and the redeemer of Israel.

It is interesting to note that some of the traditional educational customs practiced by the “yeshiva world” today originate from this Torah portion. One of the virtually universal practices is that when a rabbi, leader or teacher enters a room, students are expected to stand and to remain standing until the exalted person has reached his designated place. Similarly, in some yeshiva elementary schools when a principal or a guest enters a classroom, students stand–as a gesture of respect. In many yeshivot, students speak to their teachers only in the third person, never referring to a teacher as “You.” So for instance, it is not unlikely to hear a student say, “Yesterday the Rebbe taught us such and such in the Talmud,” rather than say, “You taught us,” which is considered disrespectful. Certainly no one would dream of walking through a door before the rabbi, or of not holding the door for their teacher or, in communal prayer, of not waiting for their teacher to finish his prayers before beginning the repetition of the Amidah (central prayer).

The Talmud, in tractate Baba Metziah 33a, teaches that if a person simultaneously happens upon the lost object of their parent and the lost object of their teacher, he is required to retrieve the lost object of his teacher even at the expense of the lost object of his parent. The sages explain that while a parent gives his child life in this world, the teacher gives his student life in this world, and (through the study of Torah) insures his student’s eternal life in the world to come. Therefore, the teacher’s lost object takes precedence over the parent’s lost object. However, if the parent is the child’s primary teacher of Torah, the child must show ultimate respect to the parent over a non-primary rabbi or teacher.

The determining factor that governs this relationship of ultimate reverence for a teacher is the primacy of Torah–which is regarded as the elixir of life! As our Maariv (evening) liturgy states (based on Deuteronomy 32:47)–Torah is our life and the length of our days, and on it we must meditate all day.

It is of course this reverence for education which has permeated Jewish life throughout the ages. Historically, there was hardly a generation throughout the millennia, no matter how poor, how insecure or endangered, that was illiterate! In fact, the Talmud (Nedarim 81a) states boldly, “Take heed of the children of the poor, for from them Torah will emerge.”

Historically, the Jewish people, in the time of the first century sage Simon ben Shatach, were the first to introduce formal compulsory education, and strict rules were set governing class size and the qualifications of teachers.

In the Code of Jewish Law there are abundant and exacting regulations concerning unfair business competition. Yet, when it comes to education, there are no competitive restrictions. The Code of Jewish Law posits that one may establish a competing school in the same neighborhood, in the same courtyard, even in the same building as an existing school, because according to Jewish tradition (Baba Batra 21a), “Kin’aht sofrim tar’beh choch’mah,” jealousy and competition between scholars are viewed as a means to increase wisdom and scholarship.

One of the quaint Jewish customs that underscores the unremitting reverence for learning is the practice of kissing a holy volume that falls accidentally to the floor, as if to atone for the negligence of allowing a holy tome to fall. Could anyone imagine, even in their wildest dreams, that a lifelong scholar and obsessive devotee of John Milton would kiss the cover of Paradise Lost that has fallen!? And yet, the zeal and reverence that Jewish people have for education does not allow for the slightest disrespect, implied or real, even to an inanimate object or volume.

It is this reverence for education that is at the core of Jewish educational success, and accounts for much of Jewish economic success. The scholar was always the most respected person in the Jewish community, far more than the wealthy business person. And that is why the wealthy business person would always vie to marry his children to the rabbi’s or the scholar’s children.

In this time of despair, that is marked by the vast illiteracy of our people, we Jews need to redouble our efforts to make Jewish education the sine qua non of Jewish life, and to make certain to devote our foremost efforts to assure the highest degree of excellence in Jewish education for all Jews.

May you be blessed.