Parshat Yitro: “Teach Them to Look Wise”

“The Jungle Book”    by    Chris Malbon   ; The Jungle Book Official Disney alternative Jungle Book promo artwork

“The Jungle Book” by Chris Malbon; The Jungle Book Official Disney alternative Jungle Book promo artwork


Last week before teaching a class on Jewish Approaches to Suffering in Psalms at Wesleyan Academy for Lifelong Learning, an older gentleman approached Betty Taylor (a Temple member and chair member for this education program) and began having a rather intense conversation - I was the topic. He was, well, let’s say “troubled” by a particular teaching style of mine. After my first class, a student had politely asked which Psalms were going to be taught so she could prepare them in advance. A completely appropriate question. But I explained that my pedagogical approach was as such:

  1. I try to tailor each class based on how the last one went, and thus, given the fluidity, I don't always know which Psalm we will be covering

  2. I want people to come to class with “fresh eyes.” Meaning I don’t want students to have any preconceived notions about what they imagined the psalms meant. I want students to be surprised. Interested. It’s the only way I can keep some thirty seventy-five-year-olds awake for an entire hour (say what you want, but it's true - my class is right after lunch time so I know the struggle is real).

However, the gentleman, upon speaking to Betty and after hearing my explanation (excluding the napping piece) raised his hand. I could tell he wasn’t satisfied with my answer by the disgruntled look on his face and the fact that his hand went up faster than lightning. He “revealed” to me that this was not, in fact, an elementary school classroom and that he was not, in fact, a child – and on top of that I was merely offensive – He therefore demanded to be shown the material beforehand and no other option was acceptable.

Now, at first, I was a slightly annoyed, but not at all surprised. Plenty of irritable geriatric individuals have uttered sentiments much more insolent. Discourteous and contemptuous remarks are a norm in my field. But something changed before entering the classroom the following week. The gentleman was waiting outside, and we exchanged pleasantries and greetings. And then something miraculous happened! He used substantive explanatory phrases to express to me something that I hadn’t been privy to before that moment.

He explained that he requires a technological reading device that the VA Medical Center had given him to read most anything. It had reading lights, a magnifying glass, and a specialized lens fitted for his vision impairment. He further relayed to me that he was completely blind in one eye and had been experiencing deteriorating vision in the other. And after discovering this, something even more profound happened. I completely understood his frustration. I have an audio processing disorder myself and I can absolutely empathize with not being able to interact with the class material. I can identify with the difficulties of feeling excluded from classroom discussions because the content presented wasn't formatted in a way that I could appreciate it.

And after our quick conversation, a third miracle came to light: He was remarkably cordial. His comments in class were by far some of the most intelligent, well-thought-out sentences I had heard that entire day. He even laughed at one of my jokes (but seriously he did). And honestly, what I appreciated most was the man’s proficient exegetical skills. He was rational. Intelligent. Astute.

And thus, this week I learned a valuable lesson. One about how each person process and understands differently than others. Which also just so happens to complement our Torah portion this week, parshat Yitro. When Moses leads the people out of the camp, we find ourselves about the meet God. We were a giddy bunch, and so Moses had to address the Children of Israel rather loudly. And God, being God, was also quite melodramatic and gaudy. And so, like Freddie Mercury, the whole scene was filled with theatrical thunderbolts and lightning (very very frightening):

“Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the LORD had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder. The LORD came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain, and the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain and Moses went up.” [1]

And following the revelation at Mount Sinai and a quick guide to the Ten Commandment, the text then explains:

All the people saw the thunders (hakolot) and lightning, the sounding of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance.” [2]

And concerning this phrase about “thunders,” the Rabbis tell us something quite interesting about this “seeing of thunders”:

“And it is stated (Exodus 20:15), ‘And all the people saw the sounds (literally, voices)’ – it is not written, ‘sound,’ here, but rather, ‘sounds.’ Rabbi Yochanan said, ‘The voice would go out and divide into seventy voices for the seventy languages, so that all the nations would hear. And each and every nation would hear in the language of the nation...Come and see how the voice would go out among all of Israel – each and every one according to his strength: the elders according to their strength; the young men according to their strength; the infants according to their strength; the sucklings according to their strength; the women according to their strength; and even Moshe according to his strength, as it is stated (Exodus 19:19), ‘Moshe would speak and God would answer him with a voice’ – with a voice that He could withstand. And so [too,] it states (Psalms 29:4), ‘The voice of the Lord is in strength’ – it is not stated, ‘in His strength,’ but rather ‘in strength’; in the strength of each and every one, and even the pregnant women, according to their strength.’” [3]

What our Rabbis explain isn’t necessarily new or astounding. But a piece of information that we all need to hear: We each understand differently. And in order to be the most effective, we have to communicate in way that the other party can understand. Because alternatively, it will just sound like a cacophony of loud noises. We have to “speak the language” of those we teach – because each of us has a different strength. Concerning the man of the story I spoke about earlier, honest to God, I would have probably reacted similarly if someone was trying to convey information through a communication portal I struggled with. Which is all simply to say that it takes not one voice, but voice(s) and various channels of transmission to disclose information in a meaningful way. Which is why I will explain the same point, but use a different story: In 1903 a newspaper in Illinois published a fable called “Jungle School Board.” [4]

“When the animals decided to establish schools they selected a school board consisting of Mr. Elephant, Mr. Kangaroo and Mr. Monkey, and these fellows held a meeting to agree upon their plans.
'What shall the animals’ children be taught in the animal school? That is the question,’ declared Mr. Monkey.
'Yes, that is the question,’ exclaimed Mr. Kangaroo and Mr. Elephant together.”

“‘They should be taught to climb trees,’ said the monkey, positively. ‘All my relatives will serve as teachers.
'No, indeed!’ shouted the other two, in chorus. ‘That would never do.’
'They should he taught to jump,’ cried the kangaroo, with emphasis. ‘All of my relatives will be glad to teach them.’
'No, indeed!’ yelled the other two, in unison. ‘That would never do.’
'They should be taught to look wise,’ said the elephant. ‘And all of my relatives will act as teachers.’
’No, indeed!’ howled the other two together. ‘That will never do.’”

“‘Well, what will do?’ they asked, as they looked at each other in perplexity.
'Teach them to climb,’ said Mr. Monkey.
'Teach them to jump,’ said Mr. Kangaroo.
'Teach them to look wise,’ said Mr. Elephant.”

And so it was that none of them would yield, and when they saw there was no chance to agree, they all became angry and decided not to have any animal schools at all.

[1] Exodus 19:18-20
[2] Exodus 20:15
[3] Shemot Rabbah 5:9
[4] 1903 April 29, The Illinois State Journal, For Women and Children: Jungle School Board, Quote Page 4, Springfield, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)

Aaron Sataloff