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The Weight of Our Words
By Kesler (Rachel) Friedman, ISJL Education Fellow
It is only fitting that our school year begins during the month of Elul. This month is known to be a preparatory month – one in which the Jewish people reflect, cleanse, and dig deep into their souls as the High Holidays approach.
With the month of Elul at hand, with the atmosphere of cleansing and heightened spirituality upon us, now is the time to focus on the power and influence of our words.
Yes – “sticks and stones will break my bones,” but words can still have heft. Words can be the stick that hits us where it hurts or the thing that inspires us to start anew. They can be the stone that makes our heart fall into the pit of our stomach or the ray of sun that keeps us shining for the rest of the day. Words can be the difference between being discouraged or determined.
Since we are in the business of molding minds, our words are probably the most dominant device we use.
So how do we improve the ways that we communicate? How do we utilize our most common tool the best we can? In the midst of Elul, this season of reflection, our words can be used to improve the connection between each other. Be it director to teacher, teacher to student, teacher to parent, or parent to director, how do we become closer as a unit, as a congregation?
Maimonides himself writes about the importance of religious education, writing that “the foundation of mankind rests on the early religious education of youth.” But if the way we impart Jewish values upon our children is muddled, all of that beautiful knowledge could be lost.
Maimonides continues, “The teacher sits at the head and the students sit around him, so that all can see the teacher and hear his words…Everyone should sit on the ground or everyone should sit on chairs.” This is an interesting format for Torah study: everyone sitting in a circle, teacher and student on the same playing-field, but still the teacher at the head of the table, with all eyes and ears resting on them. This idea of closing the gap between teachers and students makes Torah study more tangible; students can to reach out, grab the sweet and rich Torah-knowledge, and take it for themselves.
The importance of religious study is so substantial that Maimonides even lays out how teachers and students are to communicate issues and misunderstandings. “If the teacher perceives that the pupils have not understood him, he must not give way to anger and passion, but repeat the lesson even many times, until they enter into the depth of the argument. One the other hand, the pupil must not say I understand if he does not, but rather ask and ask again, even many times.”
As we clean out our closets to make way for a better year, we should keep Maimonides in mind—ask questions clearly, concisely, and directly. This is specifically for the relationship between teacher and student. But as teachers often learn from their students, parents from their children, and so on, we can apply this to all of the different hats we wear – from person to person.
Whether we are a parent, director, teacher, student, please join us on Maimonides’ metaphorical and spiritual floor as we all learn together. Allow all communication to be open, respectful, and clear. With the teachings we learned from Maimonides, we can grow stronger as a community this Elul. Full steam ahead!