The Last Lecture, Jewish Education and the Month of Elul

A number of years ago (2008), a book titled, "The Last Lecture" was published.  This best-seller was an expanded version of a lecture by Professor (of computer science) Randy Pausch, who – knowing that he had but a few months to live – delivered a last lecture at Carnegie Mellon University.  The father of three young children, Randy Pausch’s talk, replete with advice on how to lead life, was not only targeted to his immediate listeners, but to his children as well.  

Images of the Last Lecture come to mind in reading Deuteronomy, the closing book of the Torah.  The book spans the last weeks of Moses’ life.  Moses knows that he will soon die; the entire book – known in Hebrew as “devarim,” words – consists of Moses’ final lectures, aimed at immediate listeners and future generations of readers.

Moses reviews the narrative of the Israelites’ history and recaps “do’s” and “do nots” of Jewish law.  Moses recognizes that not every life situation can be anticipated; hence, his call to do what is “right and good” (Deut. 6:18).  The late 20th century Jewish philosopher Walter Wurzburger coined the term “covenantal imperatives” to refer to a “Jewish ethics of responsibility” that emerges “from the engagement of the human self with the ethos of the tradition.”  

In a book titled Who Is Man (1965), Abraham Joshua Heschel observes that animals, by and large, are concerned for their own needs; their focus is “to be.”  For the human being, the question is: “How should I live the existence that I am?”  Therefore, “the implied intent of the question ‘who is man?’ is really, ‘how is man?’” This week marks the start of the Hebrew calendar month of Elul, the month leading to Rosh Hashanah.  It is, in Jewish tradition, a time for focused reflection on the question: “How should I live the existence that I am.”

Jewish education, at its core, aims to help learners address this ultimate question.  Jewish sensibilities are nurtured by a life-long encounter with a tradition that calls on us to walk in all God’s ways (Deut. 11:22).  The ultimate concern of Jewish education is nothing less than, as Moses taught and Heschel and Wurzburger remind us, how to be.  It is that question that each of us is beckoned to consider, as we prepare for Rosh Hashanah.  

Dr. Gil Graff is the Executive Director at BJE.