(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...ham'chakim et rabo..., making one's teacher wiser...
(Deuteronomy 26:5) Arami oveid avi vayeired mitzraima...; My father was a wandering Aramean who went down to Egypt...
This particular Torah portion is always read in close proximity to Rosh HaShanah, which means that it is about as far away from Pesach as it can be. It has been just about six months since we sat around the seder table, and it will be another six months before we eat charoset and too much matzah. Yet the statement that begins with the few words I quote from Deuteronomy 26:5 resonates for everyone with the essence of the Passover ritual – not the food or the wine, but the telling of the story.
Perhaps ironically, this section of Torah was meant to be associated with offerings made at the Temple in Jerusalem. It was a declaration of satisfaction that notes our humble beginnings and concludes with a very emotional profession of thanks to God for the abundance bestowed upon us. But when the Temple fell, the Passover ritual was transferred to the dinner table. Instead of provoking gratitude, this reading was reinterpreted to provoke discussion.
And in that discussion is the most satisfying experience a teacher can have: learning from his or her students. I have a very modest friend who is an extraordinary teacher, the kind that kids remember long after they have forgotten the subject he taught. He insists that we do not give students enough credit to be able to think for themselves, and that, as a result, we shortchange them and ourselves when we don't push them to challenge what we think we know (and what we think they ought to know).
My friend articulates very well what I have marveled at during the large seder observances around our table. Throughout the years, a devoted group of long-time friends and a rotating group of dear and interesting others have engaged the texts and the issues they raise between the celery and the chopped liver. My practice is to study from a variety of versions of the haggadah – some contemporary, some classic, some traditional and some wacky – and pose questions as we read along. As those of you who have participated in Shabbat morning Torah study with me know, I generally have a destination and conclusion in mind. But invariably at seder, there will be an insight or an interpretation that will take the breath away even of those who think they have prepared for everything (like me).
Those insights have come from educated Jews and from clergy friends from many traditions, trained in their own disciplines. They have come from people, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, who consider themselves minimally fluent in the topics at hand. They have come from guests who have never attended a Jewish ritual before, and from people who have grown up attending no rituals but Jewish ones.
One year I asked people what one object they would bring with them when leaving Egypt. A friend said she would bring her house key. When challenged with the fact that she was leaving her house behind in Egypt, she replied, "This is the key to my house. When I find the lock it fits, I will know that I am home."
One year three college students debated whether it was ethical for journalists to involve themselves in the story of child slaves they were covering by buying children out of servitude. What seemed to me to be a slam-dunk answer was approached from nuanced angles I never imagined.
And last year, two African students of mine told their stories of leaving oppression for freedom. One, an Ethiopian, was hoping to be reunited with the wife and children he was forced to leave behind. The other, from Sudan, told in a gentle voice how he and tens of thousands of other children ran for their lives across open country only to be caught between hostile rebels and regular troops, each wanting to conscript them. They were forced to cross a deep river in the darkness of night; thousands were lost. The story of the Israelites at the sea will never sound the same to me.
Who is it that acquires Torah when the student makes his or her teacher wiser? Does deepening the teacher's understanding secure that Torah for even more successful teaching in the future? Or does the student take on the mantle of teacher – a credential or degree, if you will – by reversing those roles?
How can you be ham'chakim et rabo? Pose the questions in the preceding paragraph to child, student or friend.