A world-renowned site of Modern Israel, not to be found in your tourist books, is the humble abode of Professor Nechama Leibowitz behind Jerusalem's Central Bus Station - a site visited by itinerant scholar and local lover of Torah, college student and studious housewife, observant Jew and secular Israeli, rabbi and army officer. An ongoing procession passes through the book-and-gilyonot-lined study of Israel's Teacher of Teachers.
Her cluttered desk, layered with questioners' letters from around the world, Torah articles, students' theses-in-the making and siftei kodesh (always open to the presently researched text) attest to the ongoing activities of the spirited "retired" professor.
In an age of inflated titles, Professor Nechama Leibowitz is known by all as simply "Nechama;" in a profession that obsesses about "teacher burnout," Nechama has taught her subject for 65 consecutive years; in the academic world where student selection is a sign of exclusivity and rank, Nechama has taught all comers, from grade-school children to professors, simple citizens to Ministers and members of Knesset, boot soldiers to army generals, rabbis and yeshivah students, Jews and Gentiles. Today, when prepackaged pshat and Torah anthologies of instant interpretation have proliferated, Nechama continues to teach the rewards of brain-straining thinking and hard-earned Torah understanding.
A veteran octogenarian, she continues to teach students at home and
in the classroom. Last year, she taught a
Word got around. The following year, she had 50 requests for the
gilyonot, the third year, 300. Nechama graded all papers that were returned to her. As her
subscription list grew, she created new worksheets each year for 30 years until 1971. At
that point, Nechama explained that she would no longer produce new material, but would
continue to answer and grade everyone who wrote. This one-woman correspondence course in
Torah continued until last year when, due to health restrictions, she had to bid farewell
to her "parshah penpals." Fifty years of marking papers to a vast, unseen, eager
audience! How many had she received over the years? At her husband's suggestion, Nechama
had kept count of the sheets she got and returned each week. She stopped counting at
As a person, Nechama's authentic modesty, morally inspiring humor, unadomed lifestyle, unflinching critiques of modem Israeli society's misguided standards, natural indifference to the illusory glories of the academic rat-race and her ingenuous curiosity about all aspects of life make her truly a prized survivor of a bygone age.
In a country where diversity often translates into division and discord, Nechama's profound love for the common Jew is a welcome relief and inspiration. From cab driver to cardiologist, Nicharna finds the "pintele Yid." Her personal vignettes of Israeli cab drivers are legendary.
One that I find humorous and piquant is about the cabbie who, upon noticing his passenger was grading papers, and discovering that she was a professor of Tanach, took advantage of the Tel AvivJerusalem ride to unburden himself of a question that had bothered him for some time: "What does Jeremiah (9:22) mean when he says: 'Let not a wise man glory in his wisdom; and let not the strong man glory in his strength; let not a rich man glory in his wealth. But let him that glory, glory in this: that he understands and knows Me?"'
"Well," explained Nechama to her driver, "that means that human wisdom and human strength and riches are not really important values; the prophet is telling us that what really counts is knowing Hashem."
"Yes, yes, I know," said the cabbie, with a trace of irritation, "but what does he mean when he says 'Let not a wise man glory in his wisdom, and let not the strong man glory in his strength, let not a rich man glory in his wealth ... T"
Nechama tried again, in her patient pedagogical manner. "The prophet is teaching us a very important lesson in life. Those things that most men strive for riches, wealth and strength are...
"Of course, of course. Understood!" interrupted the cabbie with undisguised impatience. "But what does Jeremiah mean when he says "A rich man, a wise man; but when he speaks of strength, he says the strong man?"
At this point in her story, Nechama looks up with wide-eyed wonderment and a smile of admiration. "You know," she confides, I never noticed that! That's a very interesting point!"
Her message: When it comes to learning Torah, all Jews are equal, professor and baal agalah.
Another time, Nechama sat anxiously in front of a young cardiologist awaiting the findings of her recent heart tests. The doctor looked at his graphs and then up at his silent, apprehensive patient; again a look at his papers and again an inquisitive glance at his increasingly nervous patient Then, hesitantly and in a barely au voice, he asked "Do you also explain the Abarbanel? Because I have a question..." Nechama breaks out in a laugh as she retells the story. "Nu!" she summarizes, as if to say: Would you expect any less of a Jew? They are meditating on the Torah all the time and in the strangest places.
Her love of the common Jew is equalled only by her fierce defense of the unbiased and relentless pursuit of pshat in Torah study. In her, person and profession blend to make the teacher par excellence. What is it about her teaching itself that so stimulates her students? What is it about her method that makes her teaching a never ending intellectual attraction to such a wide variety of people?
I asked Nechama this question: What is the derech in learning Tanach that you teach? For a moment nonplussed, she finally responded. "I have no derech." In reaction to my surprise, she added, "I only teach what the commentaries say. Nothing is my own." I have heard her say this many times. It is not false modesty; the question truly puzzles her. Her disclaimer seems to me to be of the nature of "the miracle worker does not recognize his own miracles." I take Nechama at her word when she says that she doesn't teach any original thinking; what she does teach, however, is Thinking, and that, itself, is original! After many years of my own Torah and secular education, and more than 25 years of college teaching, I find my ability for straight thinking continuously challenged by Nechama's discussions.
Most teachers teach knowledge, while Nechama teaches understanding. Her contribution can best be appreciated when we realize the difference between knowing and understanding. Knowledge is the acquisition of information; understanding is a way of thinking about information. Knowledge is limited to what you have learned; understanding is a tool for further understanding; knowledge is static; understanding, dynamic. If knowledge is power then understanding is nuclear power. Knowledge requires cognition; understanding requires thinking.
In sum: Nechama teaches her students how to think and they love it.
Nechama will frequently ask a question such as: What is the difference between the Malbim's and Rashi's interpretations of the word "l'hotzie" (Exodus 8:14)? One is inclined to explain that the Malbirn says "l'hotzie" means "to take out, take away, remove," while Rashi says "l'hotzie" is "to bring out," i.e., to bring out more locusts from anotherplace. Such a reasonable answer will certainly call forth Nechama's wrath! "You have merely repeated what they say, you haven't explained the difference between them! Why does Malbim differ from Rashi? He certainly knew what Rashi said and nevertheless rejected it. And Rashi certainly thought of the Malbim's pshat and nevertheless rejected it. Why do they differ?" As the Talmud would say, b'mai kamiflagie? 1
Answering this simple question requires thinking, analysis and a search for the essential factors in the text around which the two commentators differ. And finding any difference is not sufficient for Nechama's zealous pursuit of reason; it must be a reasonable difference. Nechama is demanding in her teaching. Sloppy thinking is the enemy; straight thinking is the prized trophy.
An unending list of examples can be brought to show how her laser-like focus on precision in thinking forces us to "get into the shoes" of the m'forshim (commentaries) in order to understand their views.
What is the difference between Rashi and the Ramban on Genesis 4:13? How can each opinion be defended in the pshat of the text?' 2 What is the reason Rashi explains the word "vayeshalach" in Genesis 8:8 when the very same word appears in the previous sentence and he doesn't take the trouble to explain it then?' 3 Or, why does Rashi tell us that when Abraham answers the angel's question "Where is Sarah your wife?" (Genesis 18:9) with "she is in the tent," he is in effect saying that "she is modest "? 4 'Mere is, of course, an endless list. Our natural inclination to look to the commentaries for help won't nudge us to think; it will, at best, help us to know. But once we begin to think on our own, we can see which explanations answer the questions in the most reasonable way.
Exercising the mind in this way makes one aware of the meaning of the Hebrew word binah (understanding.) Binah comes from bain, (between); understanding means to know the difference between (bain) different ideas (which implies a common frame of reference), to know the difference between apparently similar ideas and to know the similarity between apparently different ideas. Learning in this way is an exhilarating experience. One begins to appreciate the depth of the Torah and the wisdom of the commentaries. We grasp the Torah's precise use of words and the commentators' sensitivity to their nuances.
Even at age 80-plus, Nechama will walk through her classroom checking the written answers of her 40 or 50-year-old pupils. Her feigned horror at sloppy thinking and warm approval of rightmindedness provides the vivid feedback for a challenging, mind-expanding learning experience.
Nechama actively engages her students, as she actively engages us, in the commentaries' struggle to unearth 4he pshat, guiding us in the search for clues in the text that form the basis for each opinion ("The Wforshim always have a basis for what they say, they don't offer their opinion.")
But more important for Nechama are the moral and spiritual lessons one derives from this in-depth analysis of pshat. 'Me serious reading of the text affords us the tools for a literary analysis of the Torah, but all this is meaningful only if these tools reveal a new understanding of Torah's moral, spiritual messages. The Torah is, after all, a Torat Chaim - a Torah for living.
I am constantly amazed at how Nechama unearths these moral lessons from an apparently unremarkable text: Lavan says to Jacob, "Fulfill the week of this one, and we shall give you the other also for the work you shall serve with me yet another seven years" (Genesis 29:27). 'Me words "and we shall give" are the English translation of 'Vnitnah." 'Me Hebrew is actually grammatically ambiguous: 'Vnitnah" can mean either "we shall give" or "she shall be given." Why would Lavan say "we shall give you" when it is he alone who is giving his daughter Rachel to Jacob? According to the Ramban:
In my view Lavan spoke with guile. He told Jacob that things were not done in this way in our place, implying that the community would not let him act like that since it violated their conventions. But fullfill this week and we shall give you (i.e. I and the other members of the community) the other one. We shall all agree and honor you and give you a banquet as we did on the first occasion.
Nechama elaborates the moral point: One of the characteristics of a wicked man, standing in the way of reformation, is the flight from personal responsibility for his deeds and placing it on someone else's shoulders. The Ramban shows us the timelessness of the subterfuges resorted to by the evil in man. Even in antiquity, in the uncomplicated society of Lavan and his town, the evil instinct prompted man to hide behind the shoulders of the community and shirk responsibility.
Examples of this nature can be multiplied ad infinitum. All of Nechama's lessons are built on a reasoned analysis of pshat; and all have a deeper spiritual, moral or psychological message to convey.
I will conclude with another of Nechama's tales, one that I particularly cherish. The drama, humor and hidden message are part and parcel of her tales.
We were talking about rebbes and the faith people have in them when Nechama remembered the following story:
"One day when I was in the University library's reading room, a young married Yemenite woman, who was an ex-student of mine, came over to me:
I must ask your advice.
What is it?
My husband and I are married nearly ten years and we have no children. We don't know if we should get divorced and each try to have a family with another spouse. What do you say, Nechama?
I can't answer that question. You should talk to a psychologist or a marriage counselor or a Rav. But I certainly am not qualified to answer such a question.
But I respect your opinion. Please tell me what you think is the right thing to do.
No, no. I am a teacher, not a counselor. Please do as I say and ask a qualified person.
(But the woman persisted.)
Well, if you Insist. Tell me, do you love your husband?
Does he love you?
Yes, he does, very much.
Well, if you love him and he loves you, then I think you are meant for each other and you should continue with your marriage. And may Hashem grant you your wish."
Nechama continues. "I met this woman about a year later in the library again. She had a big smile on her face when we greeted each other. Then she tells me this:
Remember the problem that was bothering us? Well, we decided to go to the Rebbe in Brooklyn and ask him. We saved up money for a whole year and we finally went.
You were in Now York! How exciting. Did you see many things there?
No, we only went to see the Rebbe.
But you were already in America, you must have done some sightseeing museums, communities...
No, we went straight from the airport to Crown Heights and we were fortunate to be able to see the Rebbe that same day, at 2 A.M.
And what did he say?
He was very friendly. And he asked my husband: 'Do you love your wife?' And of course, he said yes. Then the Rebbe asked me: 'Do you love your husband?' And of course, I said yes. Then the Rebbe said: 'if you love her and she loves you, then you should be married and not divorced. And may Hashem help you fulfill your wishes.'"
Nechama looks up with that understanding smile. "Faith in the Rebbe is a very powerful thing," she adds softly.
The message? Beside the humor, it's a tale of love, concern and respect for a fellow Jew. I remember my thoughts as I drove home after hearing that story. Neither Nechama nor the Rebbe ever had children. They both know the pain of the childless, and they both know the power of love. Their deep-seated love has blessed them both with thousands of "children" throughout the Jewish world.
2. On the sentence "And
Cain said to Hashem, 'My sin is greater than
3. This is an excellent example of the
subtlety in Rashi and how nothing should be taken for granted in his apparently simple
interpretations. Rashi explains the meaning of vayeshalach ("And he sent forth")
in verse 8, yet he did not explain the very same word when it appeared two sentences
previously. Why? The word vayeshalach always means to send forth, set free; it does not
mean "to send on an errand. " Rashi assumed we knew this and thus did not
explain the word when it first appeared in sentence 6. But sentence 8 reads: "And he
sent forth the dove from him, to see if the waters had abated from off the face of the
ground." This certainly looks like the dove was sent on an errand "to see if the
waters had abated... " At first glance, it seems as if the dove's job was to see if
the waters had dried up. But on second thought, this is ridiculous - how would the dove
know what she was Sent for? Therefore Rashi tells us she was not sent on an errand. If so,
what does the Torah mean when it says "to see if .. ?" Here Rashi tells us that
it was Noah,and not the dove, who would determine if the waters had abated by the dove's
behavior: if she returned, he would know that there was no dry land on which to perch; if
she didn't return, he could conclude that the waters had abated. The fact that the dove
couldn't possibly be sent on a mission to "tell" Noah something is missed by
4. How does Rashi conclude that A Avraham's
answer "she is in the tent" tells us he meant to say, "she is modest?"
Rashi always bases his interpretation on the text; it is notsufficient to say he is
teaching us mussar. We must ask: what in the text leads Rashi to make his comment? The
answer: The word ayo does not mean "where is..." The word aiphoh means that. The
word ayo means 11 why isn't the person here?" (As in, "Where is (ayei) Hevel
your brother?" Whi is he not around?) Now if the word ayo is used, the angels weren't
interested in knowing where Sarah was; they wanted to know why she wasn't outside with
Avraham. Thus when Avraham said "in the tent," he wasn't telling them where she
was, rather he was telling them why she wasn't outside. She was not outside because
"she is modest."
Dr. Bonchek is a clinical psychologist practicing in Jerusalem and teaches at Hebrew University School of Social Work. He is a long-time student and close friend of Professor Leibowitz.