What Should a Teacher Teach?

I have been told many times that to teach for twenty minutes, you need two hours of preparation.  At least one of the reasons is based on the fact that we can only take in so much information at once.  A teacher must therefore limit the amount of material presented to prevent overloading the student.  Another factor is the difference between our long and short term memories.  Even when a student might digest everything that is taught, most of it will only reside in short-term memory and never make it to the student’s long-term memory bank.  The upshot of these ideas is the reality that on top of the detailed information that a teacher formally passes on to his or her students, a teacher must also consider what main, central message, concept or attitude the students will actually keep with them after the particulars of the class are long forgotten.  As a Judaic Studies teacher, whenever I think about this topic there is one fundamental attitude that is alluded to in the story of the Exodus that always stands out.

When the Jews are finally leaving Egypt after their centuries of servitude, the Torah provides a somewhat cryptic description of the nation.  It says that the Children of Israel came out of Egypt chamushim.   Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra  (1089 — 1164) rejects a suggestion that the word means “wealthy,” based on the context.  That fact has no relevance to this part of the Exodus saga.  He then concludes, based on other verses that use a similar word, that chamushim actually means “armed.”   How is that particular information any more relevant at this point in the Torah than the first one?  He goes on to explain that their weaponry was indicative of their new-found liberty.  They were not fleeing Egypt like slaves that fearfully and nervously escape from their master, rather they were leaving with a proud feeling of freedom that emboldened them to confidently march out fully armed.  Chamushim expresses the Jewish pride and special dignity that they felt and experienced at that time.

In my middle-school classroom, the Aramaic and Hebrew word translations that I cover, the test questions that I pose, and the in-class drilling that I impose, are important and will hopefully somehow be useful to the students throughout their lives.  Those types of technical skills are the easy part though.  What’s most important to teach is, of course, the hardest thing to teach as well.  That is, to somehow make the students leave my class at the end of the year with a net gain in Jewish pride.  If they can better appreciate the greatness of Talmudic logic, the depth of a mussar idea, or the beauty of an interpersonal mitzvah and then be able to hold their Jewish heads up even a modicum higher, it will have been a successful year.


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