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Emor: May 5, 2018

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

We celebrated Lag B’Omer this past week. It is a rather unusual date on the calendar. We are not sure where the celebration comes from (a sure sign that it probably has pagan roots) so later Rabbis come up with all kinds of reasons that the 33rd day of the Omer should be a holiday on the Jewish calendar.

Tradition tells us that manna first fell in the desert on this day. Another explanation is that Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, the first century mystic who is believed to be responsible for the Zohar, Judaism’s classic mystical text, was said to have died on Lag B’Omer, and asked his students to mark the anniversary of his death with celebration rather than mourning. A third reason given for Lag B’Omer is that there was a plague that had taken the lives of many of the students of Rabbi Akiva, an older contemporary of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai in the first century, and the plague stopped, perhaps miraculously, on Lag B’Omer.

It is this final reason that makes the 33rd day of the Omer a day in honor of students. So, it is no surprise that we have dedicated today to the families that are a part of our Leon Wind Religious School. The school year is winding down to its close and we do want to take note of the dedication of our students and our teachers. Education is a complicated dance between the teacher and the one being taught. Knowledge does not flow naturally from one person to another. A teacher needs to know how to transmit the knowledge to the student and the student needs to understand why she should know this information. A teacher does not just share Knowledge; sharing is never enough. The knowledge has to be remembered and recalled at an appropriate time. Any teacher can also tell you that sometimes the information flows from teacher to student but often there is also information flowing from student to teacher. Like I said, education is very complicated.

A colleague of mine, last week, noted he came across some old day timer notebooks (the young people here may have to ask their grandparents what a “day timer” is) and as he looked at his activities from the ten years or so recorded in his notebooks, he lamented that he no longer knows who most of the people are who are listed in his book and can’t remember why they came to see him. “I feel like my life has been a waste these past 20 years” he said.  I looked him straight in the eye and said, “Don’t you believe that for a minute. You may not remember them, but I promise you, they remember you. They remember every word you spoke to them in their hour of pain and sorrow. They remember every word of advice you gave them during their times of trial and tribulation. They remember exactly what you did when you celebrated with them the greatest moments of their lives. YOU may not remember but they will tell you to your face that “You changed my life!”

We live in a time of instant feedback. I have no less than 7 surveys to fill out this week from a variety of businesses I had dealings with the week before. They want my feedback on how well they served me. They need to know now how well they did so they can adjust their operations to meet all the needs of their customers. Education has no such immediate feedback loop. Educators plant seeds and it could be years, maybe a lifetime, before anyone can recognize the garden that has grown from these seeds. To this day I think about the many teachers who are responsible for what I know and how I teach. My second-grade teacher fueled my passion for reading. I had two teachers in USY when I was 14 years old who taught me to see the beauty in Judaism and sent me on this path I still walk. There was a psychology teacher when I was a senior in High School that opened my mind to understanding why people do what they do. The college professor who challenged me to see the world without bringing God into the picture and the Rabbinical School teacher who gave me the knowledge to show how wrong my college professor was. I remember Rabbi Max Lipchitz, of blessed memory, who was my Senior Rabbi after I graduated rabbinical school who showed me every day of his life what a pulpit Rabbi does and taught me that while it will not make you famous, it was important work anyway. And finally, the teacher who has had the greatest influence on all I do, my wife Michelle who has patiently taught me how to be a better teacher over the past 40 years.

The greatest teacher in my life, however, is God. The great chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, once taught, “When I pray, I talk to God; when I study, God talks to me”. God and I have been in conversation for many years. When I am learning, I am listening for what God has to teach me. When I am praying, I get to ask the questions that I need to ask. In some ways every question is a prayer and every answer needs to be studied. Real education begins with the right questions.

It is important to realize that learning is a communal activity. There is a reason we learn in a school. Jewish tradition insists that when we study, we have at least one study partner. When we read alone, it is all too easy to see what we want to see and understand what we want to understand. With a partner to challenge us, we are more likely to see what we learn in its wider and fuller context.

This is also why our faith has us pray in a community, so that our questions will see beyond our own personal horizons. When we are together, we ask better and more important questions of God. We don’t ask why we get sick, we ask God why there is sickness in the world. The very way we pray reminds us that we are never alone in this world.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, the famous author and speaker, has written, “Prayer, when it is offered in the right way, redeems people from isolation. It assures them that they need not feel alone and abandoned. It lets them know that they are a part of a greater reality, with more depth, more hope, more courage and more of a future than any individual could have by himself.” To know that others share our questions and concerns, to understand that our questions are questions that have been asked before and will be asked again because they cut to the very essence of who we are as human beings. We pray because we have questions for God, and then we have to turn to Torah to find the answers we are seeking.

I tell students, that when they are studying Torah, asking questions and trying to understand the questions, they are taking part in the longest running classroom discussion in the history of the world. We not only share our questions with those who study with us, but we share our questions with everyone who has ever studied the Torah and with everyone who will ever study Torah in the future. Rabbi Kushner is right, we never are never alone in the world as long as we are learning and growing with others.

I believe that there is an education revolution going on right now. After years of neglect teachers are protesting for better pay and for more money to educate their students. Protesting history books that list Bill Clinton as the last president of the United States, and classrooms that are too big and understaffed, teachers have rallied in support of education in this country. And they are winning. Now that they have called attention to what has happened to education funding in this country, eyes have been opened in state legislatures about the basic need to make sure our children get their questions answered. Or, as one teacher put it “If you can count all the teachers here who are protesting today…. you should thank a teacher!”

Judaism has always understood that learning is the single most important thing we do, and we should do some learning every day we are alive. The work we all do to support our families is important. The Mitzvot we perform on behalf of others is important. The Tezdaka we give to the right causes is critical for those who are in need. But “Talmud Torah kenneged kulam” “The study of Torah exceeds them all”. Anything that we do which is important and urgent, first depends on our understanding. And understanding only comes from learning. And learning is something we must do every day we are alive.

So, I thank Cantor Bolts, our education director; I thank our teachers and our students whom we honor on this Shabbat; and I also thank the Education Committee, Joya Libow and Debbie Benblatt who chaired that committee, and all who gave their time, their ideas and their efforts to make our school a success. I learned once that while it takes professionals to teach a class, it is the lay leadership behind them, the parents and caring individuals who work behind the scenes, in order that the teachers and students can be successful.

And finally, I thank everyone who has taken the time to be a member of this congregation. We all know that parents alone could never bear all the costs of what it takes to educate children. The money we give to this synagogue helps us to subsidize the cost of education and makes sure we can bring to our children the best teachers, books and supplies. Education does not happen alone; it takes all of us to run the school that we celebrate on Lag B’Omer, that we celebrate today with a special kiddush luncheon and that we will celebrate tomorrow with a graduation and with a picnic. It takes all of us. That is why we are called a community.

May God always remind us that learning is growing and may we always be there to help each other learn and grow as we say … Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, May 5, 2018.


Sun, June 16 2019 13 Sivan 5779