At the Start of a New School Year
Each August, as a new school year approaches, the cycle of Torah study is in its “home stretch,” nearing the close of the fifth and final book of the Torah, Devarim. Devarim means “words.” It is a title drawn from the opening phrase of the book: “These are the words that Moses spoke….” The context is dramatic: Moses, liberator, lawgiver and leader of the Israelites for forty years, will soon die; the book is his farewell addresses, delivered over the last weeks of his life. Devarim offers much on which to reflect, as a new school year begins.
The very fact that an entire book of the Torah is comprised of Moses’ words reminds us of the possibility of growth and development. When initially called to go to Egypt to speak to Pharaoh, demanding the Israelites’ freedom, Moses famously replied: I am not a man of words (Exodus 4:10). Over the course of time, Moses developed the ability to express himself, guiding a sometimes contentious community. Fittingly, he is known in Jewish tradition as Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our teacher.
As a visionary educator, Moses devotes his closing addresses to cultural transmission to the next generation. He recognizes that successive generations will live in very different circumstances than those prevailing in his time and place. Accordingly, while advising parents to teach their children, he does not prescribe how instruction is to be conducted. Each child is unique, as is every era; modalities of teaching and learning would surely vary.
Looking to the society that might be created in the Promised Land, Moses envisions the possibility that “There will be no poor among you, since the Lord will surely bless you…” (Deut. 15:4). Yet, a few sentences later, he offers guidance on measures to be taken to address the privation of the needy. Moses understood the importance of education for resiliency; circumstances will not always match the desired ideal. Each individual and society as a whole must learn to respond to challenging situations that inevitably, arise.
Devarim is also known as Deuteronomy, from the Greek words meaning “second law.” Moses, in his addresses, repeats laws earlier communicated. Beyond recapping the experiences of the Israelites and reviewing specific laws, Moses adjures: “You shall do what is upright and good…” (Deut. 6:18). The aim of Jewish education – consistent with this instruction – is to develop an ethos of right conduct. Roots in the past combined with tools and wisdom to build the future; resilience; and the ability to navigate an ever-changing world with a well-grounded sense of the upright and the good – “take-aways” from the closing words of Moshe Rabbeinu – are an apt introduction to the new school year. To parents, educators and students alike, best wishes for a shanah tovah, a year of goodness and growth.