This post is dedicated to Dr. Pesach (Paul) Block; thank you for encouraging me to write.
If I had wanted to teach my middle-school students that the most important thoughts for Jews to think about during this time of the year are Teshuva-thoughts, I could have and should have just told them so. Instead, I did what I always find myself doing with my own children. When they ask me a question, they rarely have the luxury of a straight answer; I, for some reason, have an almost unfailing, inexplicable, and seemingly-inborn propensity not to directly answer any question. Instead, I will toss another question right back at them, a question that is carefully and sometimes even effectively crafted to lead them to discover the answer to their question on their own. So, staying true to this idiosyncrasy of mine, I did the same with my students. (For the potential merits of this educational methodology, see here.)
Instead of telling them what I thought was the most important aspect of all that we do in preparation for Yom Kippur, I asked them what they thought the most important aspect of our preparation is. This whole blog post/dvar Torah might have been a lot more interesting if not even one student suggested Teshuva as their answer, but a couple of students did furnish me with the material that I sought. When utilizing the Socratic method, that is usually what the teacher hopes for; in this case, however, the “wrong” answers led the class and myself to great insights into the High Holy Days period.
One great answer, that multiple students provided independent of one another, is strikingly down-to-earth: The most important thing to do in preparation for Yom Kippur is to eat. We must prepare ourselves physically for the fast. I decided on the spot that I must expand my lesson plans to include a separate unit entirely devoted to that topic. Another student mentioned the custom of some to immerse in a mikveh on Erev Yom Kippur, which sparked a discussion of its own regarding the purpose and basis of that custom. The most insightful answers for me however, opened up a window into one of the broad-stroke, general, big-picture ideas of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and even the month of Elul.
One student gave an answer that I was tempted to dismiss: He told the class how important it is to pray for a good Yom Kippur. Not wanting to discourage this student, I included his answer on the list that I was creating on the board. We do spend many hours davening on these days of the year, I thought to myself, but that’s not atypical of what we do on the other holidays and is therefore not unique to Yom Kippur. Even if we do spend more time than usual in prayer on these days, those prayers are seemingly the same as any other and differ only in quantity and flavor but not in quality. It wasn’t until another student mentioned the custom of reciting Selichot beginning in the month of Elul that I realized how insightful the first student’s answer was. Our prayers during these special holidays are different. They are not regular holiday prayers. They are Teshuva-prayers; prayers that express our hope that our repentance will be accepted, prayers that demonstrate our desire for atonement, and prayers that ask that the Almighty grant forgiveness to His people.
The unexpected insight that these students helped their teacher discover: Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are about attaining atonement and forgiveness by repenting, that is by doing Teshuva; they are also about attaining atonement and forgiveness by praying for the efficacy of our Teshuva by way of the prayers that incessantly accompany our repentance during this period.
For this insight into the significance of the many tefilot that we will soon encounter once again, this student is grateful to his teachers.
How would you answer the question I posed to my students? Can you think of any other rituals besides the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur prayers that may actually be another manifestation of these Teshuva-prayers. What have you learned from someone you intended to teach? Please share in a comment below.