Back To School: Learning From My Students

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.



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5 responses to “Back To School: Learning From My Students

  1. Menachem

    Is preparing for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur the most important part or is what you do after Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur the most important?


    • Menachem,

      Thanks for the comment.
      Short answer:
      What you do after Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is definately no less important.
      Not-as-short answer:
      Is loosing the weight in the first place the most important part or is keeping the weight off after it’s gone the most important? Isn’t each one of them a sine qua non to be a thinner person? At the same time, it seems that it’s valid and even necessary to analyze what the best way is to loose the weight in the first place without being guilty of ignoring another equally critical aspect of being thinner.


  2. Menachem

    Interesting, Remember, “diet” does not mean loosing weight, it means “way of life”.
    True, the way we get to a point is of all importance,but it will be to no gain if after reaching one’s goal the habits that were adopted to reach that goal are not made a permanent part of one’s way of life.


  3. Harry Swirnoff

    In my opinion, Asking Hashem for forgiveness is accomplished more by directly forgiving another for a hurtful act. And asking for forgiveness for comitting a huirtful act on someone, And forgiving one;s self for whatever hurtful acts that took place and/or coming up short on accomplishments,etc. By DOING the above we are providing more than lip service in merely asking for forgiveness. One more thought and that is, forgiving someone for hurting you in whatever matter isn’t just about that person and it doesn’t mean forgetting the trangression. Rather, in my opinion, it means letting go of pent up anger, hate, anxiety and worry. Otherwise we wind up punishing ourselves….Harry Swirnoff


    • Harry,

      Regarding your latter point, I wish we would always keep in mind the pain and stress that we inflict on ourselves when we bear a grudge.
      Regarding your former point, the fact that we talk about seeking forgiveness from God after hurting another person is only after one has already sought forgiveness directly from the victim. The fact that one must then seek forgiveness from God demonstrates that in Judaism, whenever one harms a person they have also tarnished their relationship with Him.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


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