I was beginning to learn a necessary lesson, one which I would advise all teachers to learn. It was finally dawning upon me that the most effective thing I could do with this little class of three was simply to listen. Richard, Simon, and Leon had much to say and they were almost always "right on." Had I come into the class each session with a prepared lecture, I would only have bored them and, worse, turned them off. By allowing them to present their own ideas, they were beginning to take charge of their learning, and, more impressive, of their Jewish religious growth.
As was common to almost all of our class sessions, on the week that we were to discuss Parshat Vayishlach, (Genesis 32:4-36:43), all three students were already seated when I entered the room. And their conversation had already begun.
"No question about it," Richard was saying. "It is all about confidence and fear. I always imagined that religious people would be supremely confident, certain that God was on their side. What I discovered in this week's readings, however, was that even Jacob, whom Rabbi Weinreb told us was considered the most select of the three Patriarchs, was quite a fearful individual."
Leon agreed, but went even further: "I was bothered by what we studied together last week, in Parshat Vayetze. It began with God's promise to Jacob: 'And behold, I am with you, and will protect you wherever you go... for I will not abandon you until I have done all that I promised you.' (Genesis 28:150) With such a guarantee, I couldn't understand why Jacob fled Laban in such a secretive and cowardly manner. With God on my side, I just would have said to Laban, 'Goodbye Charlie!' And this week, we read that when Jacob learns that Esau is approaching him, 'he was greatly afraid and distressed.' (Genesis 32:8) I found his lack of confidence troubling."
At this point, I was about to interrupt with some words of wisdom drawn from the Talmud and the traditional commentaries. But Simon, timid as he sometimes seemed, beat me to the punch.
"I don't think that faith in God means that you have absolute confidence that everything will turn out all right. I think that you have an extra dose of courage if you are a believer, but that doesn't mean that you are totally unafraid. And it doesn't mean that you leave it all up to the One Above and do nothing on your own.
"I have been consulting the translation and commentary that Rabbi Weinreb suggested to us, the Soncino edition of Rabbi J.H. Hertz, who is described as the late Chief Rabbi of the British Empire. I guess it once really was an empire.
"On the same verse that you quote, Leon, Rabbi Hertz comments that, yes, he was afraid and distressed, but, and I quote, 'he does not, however, give way to despair, but takes all possible steps to safeguard himself and those with him... His first defense was prayer to God for his protection; the second was to turn Esau's hate into goodwill by gifts; his third and last resource is to stand his ground and fight.'
"I guess I find a very important basic Jewish concept here," argued Simon. "Trust in God does not mean being passive in the face of danger. A man of faith is not a naïve man. He prays, true, but he also takes intelligent action and is even ready to resort to militant means to protect himself."
Uncharacteristically, Leon complimented Simon. I couldn't contain myself from remarking to Leon that his newfound ability to compliment the ideas of another person was an example of another basic Jewish concept, "Who is wise? He who learns from everyone!" (Avot 4:1).
Leon accepted my praise graciously. But he felt compelled to add, "I had always felt that Karl Marx was correct when he said that religion is an opiate for the people. I am coming to realize that the people of faith whom we read about in Genesis were not 'drugged' by their relationship to God. Quite the contrary. They knew fear and dread, but they also knew how to overcome those emotions quite pragmatically."
I was gratified, nay thrilled, by the way in which the class was independently arriving at important lessons taught by their Jewish faith. And even more so, were respectfully listening to and learning from each other.
But, I felt that I had a responsibility to contribute something from my own perspective. I therefore pointed out to the group that the rabbis were puzzled that Jacob felt afraid despite having personally heard God's promise of protection.
In the Talmud, our Sages suggest that Jacob was concerned that since many years had transpired since he had received God's assurance, he may have sinned in the interim, and that His assurance may have been revoked. In the language of the Talmud, he worried "she'ma yigrom hacheit," that maybe his sins had rendered him no longer deserving of Divine guarantees.
In the Midrash on this week's Torah portion, the same idea is expressed even more explicitly: "ein havtacha leha'avot, there were no guarantees for our Patriarchs."
I couldn't contain myself from going even further and developing what I personally think is a major Jewish teaching. That is, that no human being can be so sure of his piety to assume that he can never again sin. We are all capable of spiritual slippage no matter how old we are and no matter how fervently we are committed to our religious observance. In the words of Kohelet, "For there is no righteous man on earth who does good and sins not." (Kohelet 7:20)
The class listened attentively to my words and nodded their heads in appreciation of my message. Nevertheless, I left the room that evening convinced that the lessons they learned by themselves were the lessons that they would remember for the rest of their lives.
Whatever I told them was recorded in their notebooks, but I was left wondering how permanently my own words would remain in their minds and souls. I was sure, however, that the ideas they themselves originated would remain with them forever.