The Time a Teacher Took My Cultural Question Seriously

Here’s another one from Esther about a good teacher. 
In seminary, we learned Vayikra. Most of my high school classmates had been glad that we didn’t learn the “useless” stuff about korbanos — even if some of us were kohanim or levi’im — as girls we wouldn’t need to ever know this stuff.
But in seminary, we were all happy  to flex our intellectual muscles in a way we hadn’t before, and there were underlying concepts that unexpectedly bled into the rest of our lives.
When we learned about korban mincha, one phrase sounded familiar to me, but I couldn’t place it. Until next Shabbos, when my roommates and I were sitting at the table for shalosh seudos and sang Baruch El Elyon – and hey, mincha al machavas! But that was the lesser version of a korban mincha (I don’t remember the rest of that lesson, but this part I remember).
So on Monday, I asked the rabbi: why is it considered the lesser korban if someone fulfilled shabbos exactly as he should? He didn’t know the answer right away, but he didn’t brush it off as “it’s just poetic language, it fit, whatever.” He looked into it.
(The answer is quite simple, actually: someone who fulfills shabbos exactly as he should is doing the minimum, so it’s the lesser korban. Someone who really gets into it and honors shabbos, that’s like the better korban. I obviously have issues with that answer and the way it unnecessarily stratifies religious observance, but it is an answer.)
I think the reason that stayed with me all these years is that I’d been asking questions like that for ages.
Every time I connected something we learned in class to something I encounter in my day-to-day life, or in song or piyyut or whatever, my teachers would treat me either with amused indulgence — it’s just a song, sweetheart, don’t think so much about it – or with righteous indignation — it’s just a song, how can you compare it to the serious stuff we learned in class!
But here, a rebbi we all respected not only didn’t brush off my girlish question about a song, but treated it seriously, and showed me in the process that the things that mattered to me mattered to him because they mattered to me.
Well yeah! The piyutim we sing were generally written by people well-versed in their Torah lore, and there are many deeper meanings, like you’d find in any good poetry. 
I can’t help but wonder if the fact that she got a decent answer had to do with the fact that it was a male teacher (with a better general sense of how Jewish culture connects) and not a female teacher (with a deep knowledge of her area of expertise, but not much outside of it). 
The Time a Teacher Took My Cultural Question Seriously

7 thoughts on “The Time a Teacher Took My Cultural Question Seriously

  1. DF3 says:

    It’s sad that the author found it special that a teacher took a nuanced question seriously. The fact that the author is/was a curious student is GOOD. They should have encouraged that. I wonder what percentage of teachers discouraged such questions because they didn’t know the answer and may not have had an interest in researching on behalf of their students.


    1. Esther Bernstein says:

      Or because they felt intimidated by methods of inquiry they’d never known existed? Sorry, but that has to be said…
      A lot of my high school years were spent trying not to intimidate some of my teachers with my intelligence. I’m smart, I’m curious, I’m enthusiastic, I’m eccentric in my curiosities, I know it – and some of their egos are fragile. I know that too. Now I shout my intelligence from the rooftops 🙂


  2. > I can’t help but wonder if the fact that she got a decent answer had to do with the fact that it was a male teacher (with a better general sense of how Jewish culture connects) and not a female teacher (with a deep knowledge of her area of expertise, but not much outside of it).

    I don’t think so. I had plenty of questions brushed off by male teachers, and the teacher in the story had to do research to find the answer. She was lucky enough to have one of those rare teachers who take their students seriously and have the time and patience to follow up.


  3. JS says:

    The answer to this kind of question really depends on your outlook. Many (including myself) think that the truthful answer is really “because it rhymes”. Not to say that there aren’t serious miforshim (mostly, but not limited to, those with a chasidish bent) who try to explain these kind of things.

    Maybe this teacher was from the school that tries to explain. Or, maybe he wasn’t, but nevertheless found an answer for you because you were looking for one. That would be the sign of a great mechanech.


  4. Esther Bernstein says:

    G*3 and JS: This rebbi was just amazing. Litvish through and through, but he did use a lot of chasidish meforshim, so it’s possible the places he looked for an answer were chasidish and that’s why he got this explanation as opposed to “it rhymes.” I was teased a lot (good-naturedly!) for my chasidish leanings, when all the rebbeim and teachers, and most of the girls, in seminary were very litvish. In fact, come to think of it, when I asked the father of the family where I boarded, he did kind of smile at the chasidish nature of the question. He usually did find answers for me as well.

    As an aside, though, as I study some medieval piyyutim, I’ve been reading about theories and methods of composition. It usually involves way more than just “it rhymes.” It’s so complicated that I gave up trying to figure it out because that’s not my main interest in the piyyutim…

    What bothers me now is that I asked, they answered, and that was it. I never thought I could ask further questions, delve deeper into what the answer means, etc.


  5. Esther Bernstein says:

    Plus, I wish I would have known how to look for this answer on my own. Why did I have to ask a rebbi to look up something I knew was “mere” fascination for me? Why wasn’t I equipped with the skills to know where to look for myself?


    1. If it’s any comfort, I don’t think most first-year beis medrash guys would have known where to look, either. Though in their case, the rebbi probably would have told them where they could look it up rather than doing it for them.


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