Abraham the Teacher – Rabbi Weinreb on Parshat Vayeira

I love to teach teachers. I’ve had a number of opportunities in my career to lead workshops designed to enhance the skills of classroom teachers. Some of the most powerful learning experiences that I’ve had have occurred during such workshops.

One of the techniques that I use is to ask the participants, all teachers themselves, to close their eyes and visualize their own favorite teacher. After they have “locked in” that image, I ask them to recall the most important lesson they learned from that teacher.

Invariably, a teacher of long ago surfaces in the mind’s eye of the workshop members, and the lesson that they remember is often surprising to them. When we discuss what this experiment in imagery provokes, most of the participants express the gratitude they have now for lessons they learned long ago.

For, you see, a lesson that lasts for many years is a valuable lesson indeed, and one to cherish and for which to be thankful.

In this week’s Torah portion, we read about a most remarkable man, Abraham. This man had many accomplishments. He rescued his captive nephew, brought to the world the concept of monotheism, introduced the practice of hospitality, and stood up to God Himself in defense of the cause of justice.

Yet, of all these accomplishments, we are told that his most outstanding quality, the one for which he found favor in the eyes of God, was his capacity to teach others, and to teach others the lessons that would last them a lifetime.

“For I have regarded him and chosen him so that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may do righteousness and justice.” (Genesis 18:19, following Rashi’s interpretation)

Of all the reasons to regard and choose Abraham, the Almighty selects his ability to leave a lasting lesson as the greatest of Abraham’s many virtues.

The text stresses “acharav”, a lasting lesson. The lessons we learn for a lifetime are the true essence of education.

The Hebrew word “chinuch” is found in this week’s Torah portion for the first time. Rashi, the greatest of the rabbinical commentaries, defines the term as setting in motion a process which will last a long time. And that is what education is all about from a Jewish point of view. It is the initiation of a lifelong process.

Plato, in his masterwork The Republic, which is arguably the earliest treatise on the subject of education, writes, “The direction in which education starts a man, will determine his future life.” How well these words capture the concept of education that is expressed in Jewish sources!

Unlike Plato, however, who thought that only the elite could be teachers, Judaism teaches that every person is a teacher. Every one of us can leave a lasting impact upon another, and most of us, for better or worse, do.

I encourage you, dear reader, to reflect upon some of the important lessons you have learned in your life. I wager that you will find that these lessons go back a long way, and that they were taught to you not only by formal classroom teachers, but by men and women from all walks of life.

Personally, I remember lessons of appreciating authenticity taught to me by my father, of blessed memory. And I remember lessons about the importance of time management from a supervisor in the school system where I once served as a psychologist. I remember learning to enjoy reading from my seventh grade teacher, and I learned to take myself seriously from my Talmud teacher in my early college years.

There is nothing more rewarding to a teacher, rabbi, or parent than encountering a student or child now grown, to be told how they remember something said long ago, perhaps in passing. Discovering that we have influenced another in a positive manner is one of the most pleasing of life’s experiences.

A man who was one of the most perceptive of American educators, John Dewey, once said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” Dewey was on to something, but he too was preceded in this insight by the Jewish sages who taught that Torah study is the essence of life, and that, as Maimonides put it, “For the wise, a life without learning is no life at all.”

Abraham and Sarah were the first Jews not just because they happened to be born earlier than the rest of us. They were the first Jews because teaching others was their life’s mission. They modeled lives of kindness, empathy, justice and humility. The faithful Jew follows in their footsteps.

Rabbi Joseph Hertz, the late Chief Rabbi of the British Empire whose commentary on the Bible I commend to each of you, looks upon the verse quoted above as follows:

“It is a sacred duty of the Jew to transmit his heritage to his children after him… so that they walk in the way of the Lord and live lives of probity and goodness.” All Jewish parents, indeed every Jew, must primarily be a teacher. The eternal values of our faith are the lessons he or she must teach.