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Counting the Omer with

Day 46 — Making One's Teacher Wise

Ha’Machkim et Rabbo • המחכים את רבו

By Rabbi Tom Gutherz, Charlottesville, VA

Rabbi Harvey J. Winokur completing thirty-six years as founder and spiritual leader of Temple Kehillat Chaim, Roswell, GA
Rabbi Harvey J. Winokur completing thirty-six years as founder and spiritual leader of Temple Kehillat Chaim, Roswell, GA

In Pirke Avot (2:5) we are taught: The bashful does not learn, nor does the strict one teach.

Our sages point out not only certain qualities required for teacher and student, but also point to the way certain teaching situations leave a gap between the place where the student and the teacher are located. We often think of the teacher/student relationship in terms of giver and receiver, focusing on the generosity of the teacher. But there are times when it is the student who through her awareness, generosity and courage, can bring the teacher to a deeper knowledge of herself and her subject. The student can come out of his place of reticence, bashfulness, lack of confidence and ask the questions that can move the teacher from a place of kapdanut (rigidity), where he is fixed and locked into his knowledge and way of teaching, in order to bridge the gap.

In my own experience as a teacher, I am enriched by the questions of the student who is close in every sense of the word, the “sharp one” who aims to make more precise the point I am teaching. But even more so by the questions which come from far, from “left field” as the expression goes, from students who use words and language that I am uncomfortable with. These questions sometimes reveal an emotional or intellectual barrier that is felt but unstated, a gap that is wide between us.

In such moments, the question of the wicked son: “What is this to you?” in the mouth of a respectful and attentive but distant student can be profound. It can be understood as an intimate question, expressing a desire for closeness. It can force me to become aware of the implicit assumptions and beliefs I bring to my teaching, the worldview that is so much in the background that it never gets articulated, but which may be an obstacle for the student.

A heartfelt challenge may force me to be more reflective, and to ask: What is it I really want my students to understand? And why is this important to me?

And I may be moved to express myself in a more generous, honest and inviting way.

In moments like this I try to remember the words of Ursula K. Le Guin describing the role of the artist, words that apply to teachers as well.

She asked: How can an artist best speak as a member of a moral community?

Her answer:

Clearly, yet leaving around her words that area of silence, that empty space, in which other and further truths and perceptions can form in other minds. (from Words Are My Matter)

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