To Learn and to Teach


By Rabbi Fred V. Davidow

Parshat Va-etchanan

In Deuteronomy 4:1-14 one verbal root is used five times. It is l-m-d, lamed-mem-dalet. The basic meaning is to learn and to teach.

Moses says it is his role to teach the Israelites the laws and rules they are to observe. The role of teacher is the role for which Moses is best remembered in Jewish tradition. We could refer to Moses as Moses our Prophet, but we don’t. We could refer to Moses as Moses our Liberator, but we don’t. We refer to Moses as Mosheh Rabbeinu, Moses our teacher.

Throughout these 14 verses of Deuteronomy 4, learning, teaching, knowing and causing others to know, wisdom and understanding jump out at the reader as the main themes. Though Moses is our most honored teacher, he is not the only one who has that role to perform.

Every parent is also to be the teacher of his or her children. All parents are enjoined to make God’s laws and rules known to their children and their children’s children. The emphasis upon teaching is repeated in Chapter 5 in the verse “veshinantam levanekha,” you shall teach them repeatedly unto your children.

A signal benefit of our religious culture has been the emphasis on learning. We succeeded so well in America because Jews historically valued learning. What we did was to the Jewish value of learning and apply it to secular knowledge. Our task as Jews now is to rechannel some of our learning abilities to sacred lore — to all aspects of learning Torah — so that we can learn how to be better Jews in knowledge and in practice.

Moses tells the Israelites that they will earn a good reputation if they follow God’s laws and rules. Moses says: “Observe (the rules) faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, ‘Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is the Lord our God whenever we call upon Him? Or what great nation has laws and rules as perfect as all this TeachingthatIsetbeforeyouthis day?” (Deuteronomy 4:6-8).

The legal system of the Torah is unique among the legal systems of the ancient Near East for its laws that promote the creation of a just and compassionate society. There have been times when Jewish customs have been mocked by anti-Semites.

In the 1930s, when Hank Greenberg played for the Detroit Tigers, some people in the stands would throw pork chops toward home plate when Greenberg stepped up to bat. At other times, he was admired for asserting his Jewishness. When he chose not to play a game in the 1934 pennant race on Yom Kippur, the poet Edgar Guest wrote: “Came Yom Kippur — holy fast day the world wide over to the Jew,/ And Hank Greenberg to his teaching and the old tradi- tion true/Spent the day among his people and he didn’t come to play./ Said Murphy to Mulroney, ‘We shall lose the game today!/ We shall miss him on the infield and shall miss him at the bat/ But he’s true to his religion — and I honor him for that!”

There are historical records of non-Jews converting to Judaism because they were attracted to Jewish life by the laws in the Torah.

There is another key root in Deuteronomy 4:1-14 used four times: shin-mem-ayin, hear. The same root is repeated in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God; the Lord alone.” The 20th-century Jewish philosopher Hans Kohn wrote: “God personified Himself not in an image but in a call. In Jewish prayers and literature ‘Hear’ sounds again and again. The word for the Jew was the medium between the Infinite One and the individual being.”Deuteronomy 4:12 reads: “The Lord spoke to you out of the fire; you heard the sound of words but you perceived no shape — nothing but a voice.”

Some may remember a commercial from the ‘80s when the investment firm E.F. Hutton ran a TV ad with the slogan: “When E.F. Hutton speaks, people listen.” It was an effectively done commercial. I once saw a sign outside of a Baptist church as I was passing by: “When God speaks, E. F. Hutton listens.”

God speaks. We listen. That is an essential characteristic of Judaism. Since we weren’t in the first audience, our ancestors left us a written record: Ten Commandments engraved on two tablets of stone.

Being engraved on stone carried two messages. The first message is the content itself. The second message is this: Important words intended to be permanent were inscribed on stone tablets. When we say something is written in stone, we mean for it to be permanent and unchangeable. First spoken, then written down, God calls to us in every age.

Here then are the three key ideas in Deuteronomy 4:1-14 — (1) learning and teaching; (2) the excellence of the laws in the Torah; (3) our perception of God’s presence through God’s call to us.

Rabbi Fred V. Davidow is retired, but continues to teach in various venues in metro Philadelphia. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.


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