From Moses to Moses (Maimonides), There Has Been None Like Moses

I try not to compare myself to Moses. But sometimes, I cannot help but notice when he and I have something in common. Moses had a hostile crowd. He knew from the moment he was given his job that his labored speech and unconvincing persona would be a bit of a problem. And he was right. A number of times, including in this week’s Parashat B’shalach, he has to confront the Israelites who are discontent and doubt his leadership. His people are stubborn. Even a charismatic, confident leader struggles when she has a tough group. So it is with my students—they are a tough bunch.

That is where we diverge. Moses relies on some magic, a little help from God, and a staff that would make the folks at Hogwarts drool. I have been given no such resources. What I do have is a supportive educational director and a room full of eager young minds. While those make for a great environment, I still have to contend with a handful of 6th-8th graders, many of whom are being forced to attend religious school and have no intention of going quietly. Moses did not have as much liberty in his curriculum (as we see from the conjuring of water fiasco) but he also did not have a room full of teenagers.

I do not have a grand theory of teaching. Rather, in teaching a variety of ideas, I am open to any exercise or activity that might get my point across. I have used a variety of techniques in teaching my students. I have played games, had them write midrash, let them see what it is like to make big decisions, upended their notions of what they know, challenged them, and made them uncomfortable with the world in which they live.

Moses’ world was full of the problems his people had. He heard the complaints of the people and got them what they needed. When the people were trapped, he parted the sea. When they were thirsty, he hit a rock with his staff and water came out. When they were hungry, he made manna fall from the sky and quails fly into camp. But the people never really appreciated what he did for them. Maybe it is because they were right to grumble; he got them into that mess and he needed to get them out. It is not as if they could have done very much. If the land was arable, they would have grown crops. When they tried to store some of the manna, it spoiled. So they were wholly dependent on Moses and what he could get God to give them.

Here is another place I am happy to diverge from Moses. I would love a captive audience; I would love disciples. How great it would be to have these young minds ready and eager to keep learning what I have to say. But what I really want is for them to keep learning without me. Unlike the Israelites, my students can take what they are given and plant it. I have done my best to teach them that everything they thought they knew about Torah, holidays, and what it is to be a Jew might be wrong. Free from what notions they thought were the only options, they are now at liberty to find their own answers. Armed with new ideas and open minds, imagine how much progress these troublemakers can make if they dedicate themselves to tikkun olam! Think of what they can learn if they keep questioning the lessons they hear and demanding more from their teachers! Dream of what the Jewish community will look like with these young people at its head!

I do not want my students to remain faithful to God because God is the only one keeping them alive—that was Moses’ gig. Faith for the ancient Israelites meant survival and survival meant faith. That is the fight for survival our time knows. My students are just as entitled to nourishment, but they do not need to be reminded of who provides for them with threats and starvation. They are capable of quenching their own thirst for learning. If they are going to find meaning in their Judaisms, it will be because they worked for it, earned it, and came to their own conclusions about what they believe and how they see the world, and what they choose to do with it. Moses gave the people the Torah. He handed down the law, and it has sustained us for thousands of years. If I am doing my job, I am giving these students the opportunity to take those lessons and grow them for the next generation.

Moses wandered in the desert for 40 years shaping and teaching the next generation. When they failed, the punishments were real. When they needed convincing, the lessons were surreal. Now it is my turn. I was given this class to learn about being a Jewish educator and shaping the next generation of Jews. But unlike Moses, God did not send me manna or give me a magic stick. God sent me teenagers.

Benjamin Zober is a TJF Fellow learning to teach religious school at Temple Sholom.

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