Just before he passes away, Moses gathers the Jewish people together to offer an explanation of the entire Torah. Rashi, the medieval French commentator notes that Moses taught the Torah in 70 languages.
In other words, he taught the Torah in different ways, and in different languages to ensure that people received the message in the way that would be most clearly communicated to them specifically.
On the banks of the Jordan River, just a few short weeks before he was to leave this world, Moses spoke to a new generation of the Children of Israel who had not experienced the awesomeness of Sinai, the joy and dancing after the miracle of the crossing of the Red Sea, and who had not spent years in backbreaking servitude to cruel Egyptian taskmasters. This new generation had not participated in the largest march to freedom in human experience.
In order to make sure that the lessons learned in the desert were transmitted from generation to generation, Moses spent the last weeks of his life teaching Torah at their level, in their language, in a way that they could understand it vest. Moses made sure that he didn’t just transmit his enthusiasm about their future legacy, but was careful to also teach the more complex details of the fabric of Jewish life and values in a way that they could best integrate into their lives.
I learn from our teacher Moses that to be an effective teacher, I need to teach with great sensitivity to others experiences, tradition, and background. I can’t make assumptions, be condescending, or judgmental, for if I have not walked in my students shoes, I can’t possibly know who they truly are. Everyone has a unique set of experiences, and knowledge that is special, and helps them understand our Torah in a way that is meaningful to them.
When I bean working in the Polish Jewish community in 1991, I didn’t speak any Polish. I learned a few words and patched them together haphazardly. I learned to count and important words like bread, beer, and “I’m a vegetarian.” But really, in those first summers that I worked in Poland with Jewish youth, every time I taught, I taught in English, and sometimes with an eager teenager as my translator.
I would speak a line or two in English, and then someone would translate what I said into Polish. If I attempted a joke or something humorous, there would inevitably be a delay in people’s responses. If someone asked me a question and didn’t feel confident about their English, which was often the case, I would wait for the translator to get the question into English. Often the translator would have to ask a few questions to the petitioner to make sure they understood the question in Polish before attempting to translate it into English for me.
I spent two summers not really being able to say everything that I wanted because of my poor showing in Polish. I was able to communicate with a translator, funny gestures, and a good amount of pantomime. In my second summer, I definitely improved in the native tongue of the land. I had learned some key verbs and nouns. I was feeling a bit more secure about my specialized Polish Jewish vocabulary. I could tell people some basic things. For example, teaching that we preferably use wine Friday night for Kiddush, not vodka – ok, just kidding. However, if I wanted to explain anything that was a bit more complicated, I was constantly strained to find the proper words, and I definitely made some memorable mistakes. For example, I didn’t know that the word “sukkah” means “bitch” in Polish.
When I returned to Poland in the Fall of 1993 as a Fulbright Fellow, I enrolled in a Polish “Ulpan” at the venerable Instytut Studiow Polonijnych, the Institute for Polish Studies, which is a branch of the distinguished Jagiellonian University. I soon learned that this castle on the outskirts of Krakow, where we spent all day studying Polish, had been converted into a rec center by the German SS during WWII when they occupied Poland. The Institute specializes in teaching Polish for foreigners, including African and Italian nuns coming to fill in gaps in the Catholic Church’s staffing needs, but also offers cultural courses in English about Polish history and culture for the Polish-American Diaspora.
After a month at the Polish Studies institute, and hours each day in conversation with Polish friends, I had learned enough to interview people and teach a bit in Polish. And while I had several disappointments at this stage – like two of my star students turned out to be Christian missionaries who had successfully infiltrated the small Jewish community to covert Jews – most of the time I learned more Polish as I taught my faithful Polish students.
Soon it become obvious that the first two summers that I had worked with the Jewish community in Poland, much of my success could be attributed to people enjoying singing Jewish songs and to informal programs we ran during evening programming. But none of it could really be attributed to me being able to really explain something as well as I would have liked to.
Not knowing too much Polish, I spent my time sharing my enthusiasm about being Jewish and for Jewish things like Shabbat, Chanukah, and Passover. Enthusiasm is contagious, and for people to experience and share this love I have for Jewish life, I didn’t need to bear a full command over the Polish language. However, as my faculty for Polish grew, I could teach an entire class in Polish without having to resort to full time translation.
I also learned that I could not understand the experiences and world-view of the Polish Jewish community after the Holocaust and then 50 years of iron-fisted communist rule, until I could speak Polish. Once I spoke Polish I could peek into the world of Polish Jewry after the war, begin to understand people’s experiences, and world-view.
One of the people who helped me navigate Poland, Polish Jewry, and make what I said intelligable in English became my closest friend. I learned aa much as was possible about how to behave and act in Poland, from what beer to order to topics not to bring upon conversation wtih older folks (”so were you a member of the communist party?”). In other words, just knowing the language was not enough – I had to learn to think like a Polish Jew!
My friend embarked on his own Jewish spiritual journey as a leader in the Jewish student community of Poland, eventually studying in America to become a rabbi and currently works in the Jewish community of Hamburg Germany.
Following two months at the Nazi Rec Center housed Institute for Polish Studies, I graduated myself from their “Ulpan,” and during the rest of that year, I interviewed Polish Jews and gentiles about post-Holocaust Jewish life and Polish-Jewish relations. I continued to offer some classes on Judaism and Hebrew in Krakow, and was able to get through some basic Judaism 101 in Polish. For example: I was able to explain the we don’t accept Jesus as our personal savior, and that our probation on eating pork included all pork products, even if they had different names such as bacon, ham, and The Other White Meat.
Rachel and I began commuting to Poland in 1996 and that began close to a seven-year section of our life in which we were dedicated to building the Jewish community. I was able to teach more proficiently than ever before. The more I understood their experience and issues, the complexities and identity politics inherent in being a Polish Jew today, the better a teacher I became. Rachel too, a quick study in Polish language, history and culture, become a doyen of Jewish knowledge, at one point keeping hundreds of Polish women at the Jewish Cultural Festival in a trance of learning for over two hours.
When Rachel and I moved to Poland in 1998, I began a daily breakfast class over bread and butter sandwiches after morning prayers. Now a resident of Warsaw, I was dealing with much of the Jewish existence in Poland as my students. Every morning over our simple meal, sometimes made more exciting by tomatoes, herring, and onions, we studied Torah. From this small class are now some of the leaders of the Jewish community in Poland, including the rabbi/headmaster of the Jewish day school, and the head of the Jewish Cemetery and Chevra Kadisha.
I also learned some universal truths from my morning class in Warsaw: the best morning minyans are followed by breakfast and hot coffee, and that to expect Jews at an event without food, is hoping for a miracle!
While I am no Moses, there are a lot of lessons that I learned from him that brought me much success in Poland, and that when can apply to our everyday lives. Whenever we learn from people or are teaching people we have to respect their personal history. Every person is like an entire world, and as such, we can learn as much about the world from other people as we can from books. Enthusiasm is contagious and can be very inspiring to get people moving, but to keep them moving we have to invest in their personal story, their backdrop, what drives them and make them tick, and backtrack how we connect to them in a way that makes the most sense for them. A student learns best in the way he or she naturally learns, and not necessarily in the way the teacher naturally teaches. My blessing for the week is that you inspire at least one person around you to greatness and teach them something about life, and you do so in a way that honors their individual path and lifts them up as the unique and beautiful soul that they truly are.