D’var Torah: Teachers and learners in the Book of Genesis

The parshiyot (Torah portions) we read this month are among the most famous and fascinating in the Torah with many interconnected themes: beginnings, covenant, genealogy and family conflict. We are introduced to Noah, Abraham, Sara, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Esau. As Pirkei Avot states, “Turn it and turn it again for all is in it.” When I look at these narratives, I see them through my professional lens: education.

What lessons about education can we take from this month’s Torah portions? The most important thing we learn is that we are all teachers, whether or not we are professionals. Each day we teach others through our speech and our actions. We should never take that responsibility lightly.

In Parshat Noach, God explains to Noah why humanity needs to be destroyed. God teaches Noah how to build the ark, gather the animals and protect his family. Noah is a compliant student; he does as his teacher advises. Rashi explains why God didn’t just build the ark for Noah: God wanted people to question Noah so he would encourage them to do teshuvah (repent). Unfortunately, Noah did not understand God the Teacher’s directions. He built the ark but did not encourage people to repent, so after 120 years of building, people continued their evil ways and God destroyed the world with a flood.

Tzipi Altman-Shafer is the Jewish education community planner for Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Coalition for Jewish Learning.

Ten generations later, in Parshat Lech Lecha, God teaches Abraham, an eager student who learns all he can. Unlike Noah, Abraham and Sarah devote their lives to sharing knowledge with those around them. When Abraham and Sarah leave their homes to go to the land of Canaan, they bring with them, “all the souls they had acquired in Haran.” (Genesis 12:5). According to Rashi, these souls are people that Abraham and Sarah taught.

In Parshat Vayeira, the people of Sodom and Gomorrah are doing evil before God. Abraham’s nephew Lot lived in Sodom. Although Lot was not an active participant in the evil around him,  like Noah before him, he did not take the time to teach his neighbors how to act righteously. He did not internalize the lessons of his uncle Abraham and therefore, like Noah before him, did not save the people of his city. Lot and two of his daughters survived but the rest of the community did not. 

Tzipi Altman-Shafer at the 2019 Salute to Jewish Educators on March 3, 2019. Photo by Troy Freund

Later in this Torah portion, God teaches Abraham one of my favorite lessons in the entire Torah. God says, “Whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her voice.” (Genesis 21:12). Listen to your wife; great advice.

In Parshat Chayei Sara, Abraham teaches us how to care for the dead. He buys the Cave of Machpelah, buries Sarah and grieves for her. Abraham teaches Eliezer how to find a kind and generous wife for his son Isaac. Then Isaac’s new wife Rebecca teaches Isaac how to move on with life and let go of his grief over his mother’s death.

In Parshat Toledot, God teaches pregnant Rebecca what to expect from the twin sons she is carrying. She learns that they will always struggle and that the younger will rule over the older. As these sons grow, Rebecca teaches her favorite son Jacob; Isaac teaches his favorite son, Esau. Dividing the teaching responsibilities for their sons did not work out well. It led to Rebecca helping Isaac to deceive his father, Esau threatening to kill Jacob, and Jacob having to literally run for his life.

Here are a few of many lessons we can learn in this month’s Torah portions; the teacher in me sees these lessons as especially meaningful:

  • Parents are their children’s first and most important teachers. Children learn from everything their parents say and do, even when we think they aren’t paying attention.
  • Share your knowledge. As the Hasidic saying goes, “If you know aleph, teach aleph.” Don’t be selfish like Noah and Lot with your learning, teach everyone you can (like Abraham).
  • Listen to your wife (or husband). Extend this. Listen to all the people in your life. Put down your cell phone, turn off the TV, make time to truly hear others. Your relationships will be stronger for it.
  • Show honor to your students, as Abraham honored Sarah even after her death, as Eliezer honored his teacher Abraham, and Rebecca honored the memory of her mother-in-law.
  • Don’t pick favorites like Isaac and Rebecca did. Treat each person according to their needs, but do not favor one over the other.