The heartbreaking reality in which students from low-income areas end up graduating into dead-end careers should trouble us all. It also offers a powerful lesson into what learning, teaching, and community should look like.
In her TED talk on this topic, Dr. Megan Olivia Hall describes how teachers and parents can help close the “opportunity gap” by reaching out to one another. Students flourish when schools, families and communities work together. “When teachers reach out to parents, and parents reach out to teachers, our connections bridge the gap,” she declares.
The reason for that can be found in this week’s portion, Shoftim.
The Torah says:
The Levitic kohanim, the entire tribe of Levi, shall have no portion or inheritance with Israel; the Lord’s fire offerings and His inheritance they shall eat. But he shall have no inheritance among his brothers; the Lord is his inheritance, as He spoke to him. (Deuteronomy 18)
We are used to seeing in the Torah privileges and benefits heaped upon the Levites. There is, however, one huge catch: Unlike the other tribes, they don’t get a share of land. In a world in which land was everything —from a means to provide one’s family, or even just eat, to a generational dwelling place — the Levites are left hanging without anything. Why do they deserve this lot? Why are Levites deprived of the most critical asset needed to survive in an agriculture-based society?
Perplexed by this very same question, Moses Maimonides (1138-1204), arguably the greatest Medieval Jewish thinker, in his Mishneh Torah (laws of Shmittah 13:12), explains:
Why did the Levites not receive a portion in the inheritance of Eretz Yisrael and in the spoils of war like their brethren? Because they were set aside to serve God and minister unto Him and to instruct people at large in His just paths and righteous judgments, as [Deuteronomy 33:10] states: “They will teach Your judgments to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel.” Therefore, they were set apart from the ways of the world.
The Levites are not being punished, Maimonides states, but have a unique mission: to serve God and teach His people. Sure, in return, the people need to give tithes of food, clothing and other gifts to sustain the basic needs of the Levites and their families, but the life of the Kohanim and the Levites is a life of service.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), one of the most outstanding 19th-century scholars in Western Europe, highlights the contrast between the state of the Levites in the desert versus their state when coming into the land of Israel. In the desert, all tribes were camped around the Levites, who lived around the Tabernacle. Everything was centered around them. When entering the land of Israel, the exact opposite happened — the Levites were dispersed among the various tribes of Israel to live among them. In the desert where no one was too far from the sacred Tabernacle, the Levites can afford to sit at the center of the camp close to the place in which they serve. Once the Jews entered the land of Israel and were often days away from the Temple, it was the Levites’ job to live among them. The education they would provide could only take place in a community setting.
This is also why the Levites “eat off the table” of the community. The gifts they receive are food, wool and other items for immediate use. God wanted to make sure the teachers and the community never get too far.
As Carol Gestwicki points out in her must-read “Home, School and Community Relations,” education is most successful when the community, parents, teachers and students work together. When kids see the adults in their lives, often in an informal setting, working towards a goal, aspiring for specific achievements and valuing the milestones that get them to their goals, they too can aspire in that direction. We can only dream of things we have heard of.
If we would like to see Jewish education succeed, we must make sure it is never limited to the classroom or the synagogue, to one generation, or to one social class.
In today’s world of hyper-specialization, it is more important than ever that we work to create more community, school and teacher partnerships. This is not limited to parents or teachers. Many Jewish communities have turned their schools into centers for adult education. They make sure teachers go out and teach in the community as well, set up weekend parent-child learning programs, and inspire intergenerational learning that will forever be part of the fabric of the community.
If we would like to see Jewish education succeed, we must make sure it is never limited to the classroom or the synagogue, to one generation, or to one social class. For Jewish life to succeed and endure, it must be intergenerational, community-based and accessible to every single individual, regardless of where they are. Judaism cannot afford teachers camped around the Tabernacle; like the Levites, they must come to teach and inspire where the people are.
Elchanan Poupko is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
Candlelighting, Torah Reading
Friday, August 13, 2021
Elul 5, 5781
Light Candles at 7:38 pm
Saturday, August 14
Torah Reading: Shoftim: Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12
Shabbat ends 8:39 pm