I never raised my hand in school. It led to some fairly predictable report card comments. “Bad4 is a wonderful student with a lot to share. Or, we think she does. If she’d participate maybe we could find out.”
It never seemed to occur to them that I didn’t participate because I had nothing to share.
The truth is, I didn’t participate because I long ago decided that the teachers were inadequately prepared for what I had to share.
It started in first grade. I remember it clearly; like all major disillusioning moments, it stands out in sharp relief.
We had gotten our Chumashim and were learning the first pasuk in Bireishis. The teacher asked us why Hashem had started the Torah with creation, instead of jumping to the first mitzvah. She answered herself by saying that it was to tell the world that everything on earth belonged to Hashem, including Eretz Yisroel, which he could give to whomever he chose, and he chose Benei Yisroel.
I saw the hole in that right away. I didn’t want to embarrass the teacher by pointing it out to her, but as she went on and on in that vein, I couldn’t resist. I raised my hand.
“But non-Jews don’t believe in the Torah,” I said. Meaning: obviously, whatever the Torah said wasn’t going to convince them to give us Israel peacefully.
“But we know it is,” the teacher responded.
I wasn’t satisfied. She had said it was to tell the world who Israel belonged to. It didn’t help if only we knew it was true.
But I didn’t have the guts to challenge a teacher twice in one day, so I saved my question for the Shabbos table. My father had a more convincing answer. I think he said that it’s important for Jews to be strengthened in their belief because they have to defend themselves against the world. Or maybe he pointed out that most of the nations fighting over Eretz Israel are Abrahamic religions that accept the Torah. Anyway, I was satisfied.
Incidents like this one weren’t hard to come by. First-grade teachers do not prepare lessons with logical rigor in mind. So before first grade was over, I was disillusioned with the abilities of teachers to answer challenging questions. I knew the answers were out there; my father had them. But the women standing in front of the classroom obviously didn’t.
So I stopped asking them.
Instead, I brought my questions home, where I couldn’t be dismissed until I was satisfied.
I was born with a shortage of faith, I suppose. Devorah never lost her faith in teachers, and she was the biggest asker ever. She once derailed a Navi class for 35 minutes asking about avodas zara. It got really boring for the rest of us. We realized that the teacher didn’t have a good answer, and were ready to move on.
But it never occurred to Devorah that the answers might not exist. So she kept asking. Eventually, the teacher admitted that she didn’t have an answer and could she please just go on with her lesson? We were falling behind the curriculum.
We were always falling behind the curriculum.
Clearly, questions were not factored into lesson plans. So teachers would ask Devorah to come speak to them after class instead. She always did. She would ask and ask until they had to run to their next class. If they made the mistake of suggesting she come back after the next class, she did.
Teachers were also always promising to look things up and get back to Devorah. They hardly ever did. They were busy people, preparing lessons, grading tests, and caring for children. They didn’t have time to answer the difficult questions of a lone student seeking the truth.
Because nobody else seemed to care. We had all decided that the answers either existed or didn’t, and we didn’t particularly care what they were. It didn’t matter, once you had decided. Except for Devorah. She wanted to know the answers, not just believe in them.
Somehow, with all the runaround and lack of answers, Devorah never lost faith that the answers were there – she firmly believed that the teachers simply hadn’t had a chance to look them up.
I spoke to Devorah last week, and she said she was still strongly disappointed by the way teachers “didn’t think it necessary to keep their word.” Ouch.
Devorah’s ability to ask met its match in our 11th grade Mussar teacher’s ability to answer. More about that next week.