In 2008, the Los Angeles Times ran an op-ed written by Marisol Leon, a young woman who graduated from Yale in 2007 and returned to teach in the same public middle school she had attended:
“‘Think Ivy League,’ pleaded Mrs. Anderson, my English teacher. ‘Ivy League? What is that?’ I wondered. I was in the seventh grade that day, a student at Mount Vernon Middle School in mid-city Los Angeles. I stood there in awkward disbelief as Joan Anderson explained the notion of elite colleges to me. I knew hardly anything about colleges: Neither of my parents finished high school. But my teacher understood that, and by the time I graduated from Mount Vernon, she had made certain that I was committed to going to college. Wednesday was my first day back at Mount Vernon, which is now Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Middle School. I am a seventh-grade English teacher, placed here by Teach for America.”
Leon describes how she was inspired by her teacher and how she inspires her students by sitting them in groups of four. Each group is named for a different role model, and a picture of that role model hangs above each group with a quote on the back. For example, on the back of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu’s picture is the quote, “The world is not going to change unless we are willing to change ourselves.”
Inspiring people is as old as history itself. How do we inspire people to do right rather than wrong? An answer is found in the opening words of this week’s Torah portion: “If you will go in My decrees” (Leviticus 26:3). The word for decree is bechukotai, which gives the name to this portion. This word is usually associated with chukim, the nonintelligible laws that are beyond man’s total grasp, such as the laws of the sacrifices.
The Baal HaTanya, the 18th century founder of Chabad Chasidut, wondered why the Torah referred to the commandments by the word bechukotai, the laws that seem to us to be nonintelligible. He noted that the word actually has another meaning — chakika, engraving. To appreciate this point, he explains that there is a big difference if one uses ink and writes on parchment or if he engraves the words into a stone. With ink and parchment the two items are separate entities, never fusing into one. It is similar to one who puts on clothing. The clothing may rest on the person, but they never become one entity.
When it comes to engraving, however, the words etched into the stone are part and parcel of the stone. It is for this reason that this is the word used in describing Jewish commitment, and, if you will, Jewish spirituality. What counts isn’t what is on the surface; it isn’t the warm and fuzzy feeling. What matters is that which is engraved down deep and into the heart of the Jew.
The Shlah, one of the great kabbalists of the late 16th and early 17th century, noted an oddity that deserves our attention. In this week’s portion we have the Tochacha, frightening verses of retribution that describe what will happen to us if we don’t follow the commandments of the Torah. Before the end of the Tochacha, the Torah declares, “I will remember My covenant with Jacob and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham will I remember, and I will remember the land” (Leviticus 26:42).
The Shlah wondered why the Torah placed this seemingly comforting verse inside the Tochacha rather than after it concluded. He insightfully suggests that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are the best ethical lesson we can ever receive. They stare us in the face, if you will, and tell each of us, we too can follow their example. We too can be devoted to God and Torah just like they were. We too can engrave the Torah on our hearts and not make it a superficial experience.
Every generation needs its outstanding teachers who will engrave the message of our Torah onto our hearts. Our eternal teachers are our patriarchs and matriarchs who lived challenging lives and yet remained loyal to God’s calling.
Elazar Muskin is senior rabbi of Young Israel of Century City (yicc.org), an Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson area.