If You Want Your Children to Believe in Ahavas Yisrael, Start Here:
In the aftermath of Tisha B'av, the Torah begins with the most heart wrenching of pesukim:
וָאֶתְחַנַּן אֶל ה׳... אֶעְבְּרָה נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַטּוֹבָה אֲשֶׁר בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן
I begged Hashem at that time... Please let me go over and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan.
On this pasuk, the Medrash Rabba (ב:א) famously comments:
שהתפלל משה באותו הפרק חמש מאות וחמשה עשר פעמים
Moshe prayed five-hundred and fifteen prayers at that time (The numerical value of ואתחנן.)
We are used to the idea that Moshe Rabbeinu was not allowed into Eretz Yisrael. We are all aware of his desperate and repeated plea to be granted entry. But even a moment of consideration leaves us with the pain of Moshe's raw emotions. Surely Hashem loved him? Surely Moshe did Teshuva? Surely it was not beyond Hashem's capacity to forgive His most loyal and dedicated servant? This Parsha is theologically and emotionally challenging.
But the Medrash finds it challenging for a different and far more disturbing reason. On two occasions in Sefer Devarim, the Torah tells us that Moshe was hinting something much worse; something that his people did not understand:
אמר רבי תנחומא: שהיה משה מחבט עצמו לפניהן ואומר להם: אתם עוברים אני איני עובר, ופתח להם פתח שמא יבקשו עליו רחמים, ולא היו מבינים.
Rabbi Tanchuma says: Moshe tells the nation “Today you are crossing the Jordan River.” That is to say, “you are crossing. I am not.” He was hinting that they should daven for him, but they did not understand (דברים רבה ג).
אמר רבי שמואל בר יצחק: כיון שנטה משה למות ולא בקשו עליו רחמים שיכנס לארץ, כנס אותן והתחיל מוכיחן. א”ל: אחד פדה ס' ריבוא בעגל, וס' ריבוא לא היו יכולין לפדות אדם אחד?!
Rabbi Shmuel bar Yitzchak says: When Moshe was about to die, and the Jewish nation had not davened for him, he reproached them as if to say “I, as one person, saved you all from the sin of the golden calf. How could six-hundred-thousand of you be incapable of saving me?” (דברים רבה ז).
Chazal in these Midrashim are challenging us. Are we davening for our teachers? If if not, why not?
The Kedushas Levi (פר׳ בהעלותך), with his constant perspective on Ahavas Yisrael, tries to judge Bnei Yisrael (and us) favorably. His suggests that Bnei Yisrael trusted Moshe so completely, that if Moshe said he was not allowed to enter into Israel, then that was the truth. There was nothing that they or anyone else could've done.
But the Sfas Emes (ליקוטים פר׳ ואתחנן) explains that this was a terrible indictment against the nation. Hashem told Moshe אַל תּוֹסֶף דַּבֵּר אֵלַי עוֹד בַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה “don't daven even once more”. That is to say, if Bnei Yisrael would have davened, even once, for Moshe, he would have been allowed into Eretz Yisrael!
I think that both of these approaches are correct. Somehow, we seem to think of our teachers as if they are both more and less than human. We place them on a strange pedestal where they are too distant for us to think of them as needing us. But at the same time, their lives are public property enough to trash to our friends and neighbors.
This phenomenon has taken on a life of its own regarding our kids' teachers in the age of social media and WhatsApp groups. Kids have always viewed their teachers as “living in the classroom”, distant from their lives outside of school hours. But this feeling has now spread to parents, with devastating results.
More and more, teachers are feeling that parents are not partners in education, but adversaries.
Let's set the record straight. As far as the Halacha is concerned, the role of a teacher is to be the shaliach mitzvah (emissary/agent) of the parent in educating their child. Teachers are not disciplinary straw men so that parents can be the “good cops” to our children.
I am, as always, wary of giving mussar. We all respond to positive messaging far better than the alternative, so I'll address this with the vision of our best selves in mind: If we want our children to believe in Ahavas Yisrael, Kavod Ha'briyos and good middos, then we should model this behavior ourselves. And it starts with the people most vulnerable to disrespect – Our kids' teachers.
The COVID pandemic brought with it a pandemic of scathing Sinas Chinam to the teachers and school administrators of our community for policies that parents disagreed with. And our children are not oblivious to the way we speak of their schools and teachers. Of course, none of this is intentional. No-one thinks “I'm gonna beat up on my kids' schools and teachers.” So from where does this attitude arise?
It has become acceptable, even praiseworthy in the USA to publicly lambast and humiliate people in positions of authority. But even if we do think of criticizing educators as “punching up” and “speaking truth to power”, we should realize that these people are still our friends and neighbors. Our community is not filled with disembodied talking heads.
Make no mistake: There is not a single teacher who is not praying that we're done with masks, distancing and zooms. No one knows better than the teachers how damaging last year was to education. Teachers just want to teach, and many are choosing alternate careers rather than deal with the bullying they receive from parents.
If we believe in Menschlichkeit and Ahavas Yisrael, then it is encumbered upon us as parents to act towards others with those middos. By all means, disagree! But resorting to venting and Lashon Hara is not civil disagreement.
In a few weeks time during the Yom Kippur Vidui, we will ask Hashem to forgive us for זלזול הורים ומורים – disdain of our parents and teachers. We should take note that the Tefillah is not talking about the time you through a pencil at your fifth grade Morah. We're asking Hashem to forgive us for our lack of love and empathy for the teachers in our lives today. We're asking Hashem to forgive us for not davening for Moshe Rabbeinu then and now.
If only we would have, perhaps all of Jewish history would be different. Perhaps we would merit a deeper education, a greater partnership with those who give of their lives and time so that we and our children can reach higher.
They tell a story about a man in Bnei Brak who was debating between two shuls. One was a closer walk with more singing. One was further, with better shiurim. So he went to the Chazon Ish to ask what his priorities should be in choosing a place to daven. The Chazon Ish asked: “Do they both have Rabbis?” “No” the man replied, “Only one has a permanent Rav.” “Then go to the one with a Rav. Not because you need him to tell you the Halacha. For that, there are many options. But it is essential for your son to see you shake the Rabbi's hand at at the of davening. That way, he will grow to have Kavod HaTorah, and good Middos.”
Hashem should help us to build our children and our community with the values that we hold nearest and dearest: That our children should grow in Love of Hashem, Love of Torah and Love of the Jewish people.