I imagine that everyone in this room can think of a teacher they encountered at some point in their lives who has had a deep and lasting influence on them. It might have been a teacher in elementary school who helped you learn how to read, who opened up the magic and mystery that a great story can bring into your mind. Perhaps it was someone you met in high school, who got you interested in a subject that would end up guiding your career choices for the rest of your life. Or maybe there was a college or graduate school professor who happened to say just the right thing to you at just the right time, the one thing you needed to hear to get you going in the right direction.
If you’ve been lucky to have a teacher like that, or maybe even more than one, you know that the lessons you learned from that teacher will stay with you for the rest of your life. They have in a sense helped to form who you are, how you see the world, even how you live in the world. I recently officiated at the funeral of a woman who had spent her life as a teacher. Tragically she died too young, just about 60 years old. Her funeral was packed with students she had taught – some of them were current students, some of them were students she had 5, or 10, or even more years ago. She taught theater and drama, and just as the service was about to start the family chose to play a song from the musical Wicked called ‘for Good.’ There is a simple yet very powerful line in the song – you’ll recognize it if you know the musical – ‘because I knew you I’ve been changed for good.’ When that line came thought the PA system all of the students at the funeral began to weep. That weeping was a beautiful eulogy – in one moment it summed up the impact this woman had had on them, on their lives – she had made a difference, and her students knew they were better people because they had known her, had learned from her.
I often wonder if the ancient Israelites knew that they had that kind of teacher in Moses. From a straight forward reading of the Torah you wouldn’t think so. Moses does his best. He teaches by his words, by his actions, even by his silences. He stands by the people, he believes in them, even when God no longer does. But the people don’t seem to realize that right in their very midst is not only a great teacher, a life changing kind of teacher, but arguably one of the greatest teachers to have ever lived, a teacher so great that still to this day, almost 5000 years after he died, we are still learning from his words, studying his laws, and shaping our lives based on his values.
But the people never thank Moses, never acknowledge the gifts that he gives to them on a daily basis. Instead they complain to him about what he has done to them, bringing them into the wilderness. They rebel against him. They worship an idol the moment he steps away from the camp. They sin against God, again and again putting Moses in the position of defending them against God’s wrath. Even in this morning’s Torah portion, when Moses has taken them all the way, when they are finally just outside the Promised Land, looking in, knowing it is only another few miles, knowing their goal has been achieved and the promise that Moses made to them has been fulfilled – even then, they complain.
But despite all of that, Moses somehow managed to leave the impression that the great teachers leave on their students. The Israelites learned the lessons that he taught, even though they might not have even known they learned them. They entered the new land and created a culture that reflected Moses’ values, that was based on the fundamental ideals of the Torah that he created and left with them – ideals like freedom, human dignity and equality, justice, and the sense that all people are created in the image of God. Moses’ teachings were remembered and lived long after he was gone, even thought at the time the people didn’t seem to be listening, didn’t seem to be buying in to what he was saying. But somehow he touched all of them, and changed them for good.
I take two messages from this. The first is a comforting message for a rabbi. Even when people don’t seem to be listening, even when they look distracted, or bored, or like they wished they were somewhere else, they might very well be listening and learning something from you. If the Israelites – despite all of their troubles – were able to internalize the lessons of Moses, then there is hope for the rabbi! And also, by the way, that is a good thing to remember if you are a parent, or grandparent – your children and grandchildren are listening and learning from you, even when you might think they aren’t so interested. So teach them well.
But the other lesson I learn from this is how important it is to thank the teachers in our lives. That person who made a difference, who gave you a piece of themselves, who got you to think in a new way or point you in a new direction – let them know what they’ve done, how they’ve helped you, how they have changed you for the good. Believe me, as a teacher that kind of message is deeply appreciated. And I wonder if the end of Moses’ life would have been less bitter and disappointing if the Israelites had been able, in some way, to let him know how much he had done for them, how much of a difference he had made in their lives. If they had been able to do that, the deep loss he felt at not being able to enter the Promised Land might have been easier to bear.
I’ve been lucky in my life – blessed, really – to have had a number of teachers over the years who left a deep impact on my life. There was an elementary school teacher who opened my mind to the power of reading, who helped me to fall in love with books, a defining theme of my life. There was a college professor who believed in me, who taught me that I had something worthwhile to say – even though I didn’t know it at the time. And there were a number of teachers in rabbinical school, who helped me understand the tradition, who gave me a sense of authenticity so that I could work as a rabbi in a community, and who most importantly of all helped me discover a passion for Jewish learning that I didn’t know I had.
One of those teachers died this past week, after a long and good life. His name was Rabbi Ben Zion Bergman – called by almost everyone Benzi – and he was my first real Talmud teacher. He was curmudgeony and demanding, critical at times, and if you weren’t prepared for class he didn’t let you slide. But he was fair and wanted the best for his students. He was incredibly bright, had a truly remarkable memory that bordered on the photographic – he once told me that when he was young he could meet 50 or 60 people in a room and remember all of their names. He was wise and thoughtful, had worked in the real world as a rabbi, not just in academia, and told wonderful – and often hilarious – stories about the experiences he had. And most importantly of all, he had that rare ability that only the greatest teachers have to teach not only their subject, not only the material, but also to give you the passion and love they feel for their subject, so that it can truly be yours. And although I will confess this morning that I don’t remember all of the class room lessons, all of those pages of Talmud we pored over, the passion for the study of sacred texts that he helped me discover I will never forget. And I hope that will be enough of a tribute to a great teacher, a wonderful rabbi, and a true mensch. May his memory – and the memories of all the great teachers in our lives – always be for a blessing –