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August 31, 2011

Back to School

Parashat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)

http://www.jewishjournal.com/torah_portion/article/back_to_school_parashat_shoftim_deuteronomy_1618-219_20110831

Elazar Muskin is senior rabbi of Young Israel of Century City (yicc.org), an Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson area.

Elazar Muskin is senior rabbi of Young Israel of Century City (yicc.org), an Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson area.

With a new school year upon us, I found the following story, “What Teachers Make,” revealing.

“The dinner guests were sitting around the table discussing life. One man, a CEO, decided to discuss the current problems with education. He argued, ‘What’s a kid going to learn from someone who decided his best option in life was to become a teacher?’

“He reminded the other dinner guests what people say about teachers: ‘Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.’

“To stress his point, he said to another guest: ‘You’re a teacher, Susan. Be honest. What do you make?’ Susan, who had a reputation for honesty and frankness replied, ‘You want to know what I make? I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could. I make kids wonder. I make them question. I make them criticize. I make them apologize and mean it. I make them write. I make them read, read, read. I make them show all their work in math and perfect their final drafts in English. I make them understand that if you have the brains and follow your heart, you will succeed; and if someone ever tries to judge you by what you make, you must pay no attention because they just didn’t learn.’ Susan paused and then continued, ‘You want to know what I make? I make a difference. What do you make?’ ”

Susan, I’m sure, could make each of us wonder, “What difference do we want to make?”

An answer to this pressing question is found in this week’s Torah reading. The Torah declares, “You shall be wholehearted with Hashem, your God” (Deuteronomy 18:13). This statement has always been so essential to Judaism that Maimonides argued that it is an overriding principle and not a specific mitzvah, therefore he did not include it in his enumeration of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah. 

Whether Maimonides’ interpretation is correct or not, what is fascinating is the context in which this verse is found. This statement is part of the prohibition that a Jew may not use divination, read omens or frequent a sorcerer in order to find out what the future holds.

So what does “you shall be wholehearted with your God” have to do with prohibiting divination? The answer is a lesson for us and for our children.

The Talmud, in tractate Shabbat 156a, declares, “Celestial signs hold no sway over Israel.” The Talmud, however, wonders if astrologers really are able to tell the future. According to the Talmud it would appear that they indeed do have such powers. But do they have the final word? The answer is absolutely “no.”

If one leaves his destiny in the hands of someone such as a fortune-teller, the Torah understood that a person would achieve nothing in life. One will always have an excuse that he or she can use for all mistakes. “I was doomed from the outset,” someone could argue.

Being “wholehearted,” as the Torah commands, is the opposite of relying on the sorcerer, because when one is wholehearted he has achieved on his own. Outside forces aren’t the determiners. This is exactly what the Prophet Jeremiah wrote in the third chapter of Lamentations. At first he blames God for the destruction of the Holy Temple. He declares, “I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of His wrath” (Lamentations 3:1). Who should we blame? It isn’t our fault but God’s wrath. But as he contemplates that charge, he begins to change his mind and says: “By the command of the Most High, neither good nor evil come” (Lamentations 3:38). And finally, Jeremiah concludes, “Let us search and examine our ways, and let us return to the Lord” (Lamentations 3:40).

What a lesson this is for all of us, but in particular for our children. We want them to use their own talents and not to give excuses if they fail. We want them to be able to rebound on their own and not to depend on any crutch that will only hinder their growth.

So, what should we tell our children as they begin a new school year? Perhaps something like this: “Be yourself, and achieve your best, but only achieve it ethically and morally. Never offer excuses if you don’t succeed, for that will never allow you to grow. Rather, know that we are proud of you, and if you try hard enough we know that you will achieve your goal.”

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