Rabbi Preda: A Love Story

Dear Friends,
Tonight, on the eve of the New Year 5774, I want to talk about love. Let me begin saying something that you don’t hear people say every day:
“I love teenagers.”
Yes, I do. And more than anything else, I love teaching teenagers. As a matter of fact, if, God forbid, I somehow became incapacitated so that I had to relinquish all of my Temple responsibilities except for two, I know exactly which ones I would never give up:
1) teaching confirmation kids
2) teaching post-confirmation kids
You’ve no doubt heard that expression, “They’ll take away my [fill in the blank] when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers”? That’s how I feel about teaching those classes.
Because kids that age are so alive. Because they are so emotionally present. Because they are thoughtful and curious. Because they love a good argument. Because they like to laugh and they do so openly and freely. Because they don’t have hidden, political agendas. Because it actually doesn’t take much more than listening to them and taking them seriously to win their love. (Indeed, they are so used to being “handled”or ignored by the grown-up world that they are stunned and grateful to have any adult authority figure hear them out and treat them with respect.)
My own family knows that they can judge how Confirmation class went on any given Sunday based upon my posture and demeanor when I walk through the door on Sunday afternoon. If I look disappointed and frustrated, then Confirmation didn’t live up to my expectations that day. If there’s a spring in my step and I look relaxed and happy, then the class really took off.
Each year in Confirmation class, we spend some time thinking and talking about the relationship between teachers and their students. Specifically, as we prepare to learn to recite the Hebrew blessing that you’re supposed to say before you begin to study (Praise to you, God, for making us holy with mitzvot and for commanding us to be busy with words of Torah) I ask the kids to think about the best teachers they have ever had and about what made them great and memorable.
Slowly some hands begin to rise and the students offer what makes for great teachers:
The best teachers are teachers who are fun, they say. Teachers who care about you as a whole person and not just as someone being graded on a particular subject. Teachers who make themselves available to you outside of class. Teachers who know the material really well. Teachers who find creative ways to impart the subject matter (which leads to a tangental rant about the over reliance of too many teachers on PowerPoint presentations). Teachers who are tough and demanding, provided that they hold themselves to equally high standards. Teachers who open up and tell you something about themselves and their lives, provided it’s not “too much information.”
Often, during this discussion of inspiring and memorable teachers, names are named and reminiscences are shared.
“Oh, I had her too, she’s awesome!”
“What about you?” they ask.
And so I tell them about Mr. Flint, my seventh grade history teacher, to whom I paid rapt attention because, in spite of my indifference to the explorations of Robert de LaSalle and Vasco da Gama, the jokes that Mr. Flint placed strategically throughout the hour made me pay attention so I didn’t miss any of his one-liners. And then there was Mrs. Tobin, my 12th grade English teacher, who once, when returning an assignment, put my paper on my desk, looked into my face and said, “You need to keep writing. You’re really good at it.” And I will also never forget Mr. Stewart, my 12th grade AP Biology teacher, who taught us life-sciences from a college-level textbook. He told us the first day of class, “You may come out of this class loving biology, and you may come out of this class hating biology, but you will come out of this class knowing how to study.” Mr. Stewart backed it up by offering, after school and on his own time, workshops in how to take notes and how to study vocabulary and how to use a highlighting marker effectively. “I failed my first couple of exams in that class,” I tell the Confirmation kids, “but by the end of the year I had pulled my grade up to a B, so that I did my failing in high school but had learned how to study by the time I got to college.”
And then we get to the second half of the exercise. “Tell me about some of the worst teachers you’ve ever had and what made them so awful.” There is a strict rule in this part of the conversation: no names are to be named. (That would be lashon hara – slander – and Judaism vehemently forbids it.)
This time, as you might guess, there is no hesitation in the raising of hands. The kids are pretty much levitating out of their chairs waving their arms in the air, interrupting each other to offer their most miserable classroom experiences:
They talk about teachers who don’t know the material. Teachers who don’t seem to like kids very much. Teachers who, judging by their bearing and demeanor, would much rather be doing something else other than teaching. Teachers whose rules are capricious and arbitrary. Teachers with poor personal hygiene. Teachers who grade unfairly, especially those who give tests on things they haven’t actually taught. Teachers who play favorites. Teachers who publicly subject students to humiliation.
“What about you,” they ask.
And so I tell them about a high school teacher of mine, who once publicly announced to my entire class (with great dramatic flair, no less) that I had scored the lowest grade in the entire class on an exam.
We close out the conversation by thinking about what qualities make a good student.
And then we move on to study some ancient rabbinic texts from the Talmud and codes of Jewish law about teaching and learning. After all, the very word “Rabbi” - Rah-bee - means “my teacher,” and all Jews are supposed to be lifetime students of Torah. So, the relationship between teachers and learners is a topic that Judaism holds very dear.
Here, from the Babylonian Talmud, is one of my very favorite texts to analyze with the Confirmation kids. It concerns a certain Rabbi Preda, who, as far as I know, gets his fifteen minutes of fame in this one, single passage:
“Rabbi Preda had a certain student to whom he had to teach everything 400 times. One day, Rabbi Preda was going to be needed to perform some mitzvah. He taught the student, but the student could not grasp the material.
Rabbi Preda asked, ‘What is the matter?’
The student answered, ‘From the moment they said to you there is a mitzvah to be done, I could not concentrate because I kept thinking: Now he will have to go. Now he will have to go.’
Rabbi Preda said to him, ‘Pay attention, and I will teach you again.’ He then reviewed the material another 400 times.”
So far the story is clear. Many centuries before anyone had heard of ADD, ADHD, dyslexia or special needs education, Rabbi Preda has a student who cannot absorb the lesson without an enormous amount of repetition. Rabbi Preda is exceedingly, almost superhumanly patient, going over the lesson again and again and again.
And then, there is a knock at the door. Rabbi Preda pauses to speak to the visitor. There is an exchange of whispers and the student barely makes out the words ”…they need you for a mitzvah…“
And now the student is completely rattled. His sense of shame, not only for being slow to grasp the material but also for wasting Rabbi Preda’s time going over the same lesson again and again, is compounded by the knowledge that there is now something for which his teacher is needed elsewhere, something that is surely infinitely more important than trying to teach someone so slow to learn.
But no. At this moment in the story Rabbi Preda gives his student the greatest gift that you or I can ever give another person: the gift of his complete and undivided attention. Without saying it aloud, Rabbi Preda tells his student, “Right now, while we are learning together, you are the center of my universe. There is nothing more important to me at this moment than what you and I are doing. Whatever they need me for can wait. Let’s review this again…”
As it turns out, the Talmud is not quite finished with Rabbi Preda, for our story has a coda:
“A Voice from Heaven was heard to say to Rabbi Preda, ‘Would you prefer to have 400 years added to your life, or that you and your entire generation be assured life in the World to Come?’
He answered, ‘May my Generation and I be privileged to enter the World to Come.’
The Holy Blessed One said, ‘Give him both rewards.’”
It seems that God, looking down on Rabbi Preda and his student, is dumbfounded by Rabbi Preda’s patience. “Bringing the cosmos into existence was nothing compared to what this guy is trying to do,” muses God. “He deserves some kind of reward.”
So the heavenly voice offers Rabbi Preda a choice of rewards: have 400 years added to your life (corresponding in some way to the 400 times Rabbi Preda had to repeat each lesson for his student) or, guarantee a place in the World to Come, Olam Ha-Ba, Paradise, for yourself and your entire generation.
I used to think that the fact that Rabbi Preda chooses eternal life for everyone in his generation had to do with his selflessness, already amply demonstrated by his great love and tenderness for his student. But the story, I think, is teaching us an even larger lesson than the value of generosity. I think Rabbi Preda chooses the gift of Eternal Life because, as a teacher, he has already experienced Eternity. Eternity is present whenever you are completely, wholeheartedly present to the person who stands before you. There is nothing else but that person in that moment. In that way, while still alive, Rabbi Preda had already tasted Eternal Life. He knows what it is for ego and self-concern to dissolve in a nurturing relationship.
This is the essence of what drives great teachers to teach. It is the buzz, the “juice,” the thrill of teaching. Rabbi Judith Abrams, a seminary classmate of mine and a teacher of Talmud from Houston, recently said to me that “the love of a teacher for a student and of a student for a teacher is some of the purest, most unselfish love there is. It can be as strong as the love of a parent for a child, but without all the parent-child baggage.” In this way we can understand what the Talmud meant when it said, ”Get yourself a teacher, acquire yourself a friend.”
Rabbi Preda is “old school.” In the days of the Talmud, your teacher was not just there to drill you in a body of facts. They had to be a mensch, a good and fine person. You learned not only from their book learning, but also from their bearing and way of being in the world. It was understood that your teacher was a role model. That is why Joseph Karo in his code of Jewish law tells us that no matter how great a teacher’s expertise in a given field, if they do not “walk in the good way” then we may not hire them.
My friend Rabbi Abrams is right. Rabbi Preda’s story is a love story. What is love, after all? Rabbi Preda knows: love is, “no matter what, no matter how hard it gets, I’m not going to give up on you, and on us.” Love is commitment. Love is “I’m not going anywhere.”
If you are very, very lucky, you are blessed with a reverential relationship to this kind of loving, committed teacher once or twice in a lifetime. A teacher like that can change your life. A teacher like that can change the world.
This kind of unselfish, world changing love between teachers and students still exists. I know that it does because I have experienced it from both sides, both as teacher and a student. And I know that it does because of the following story.
This story was told to me by Phil Schmidt. Actually, it was told to me and a lot of other people, because Phil told it at his retirement dinner. Phil, who I’m proud to say is a member of Congregation Beth Israel and even more proud to say a member of my extended family, is now an emeritus member of the faculty of the University Of Texas School of Engineering. During the tribute portion of his retirement dinner last spring, speaker after speaker gave testimony to how Phil’s love of teaching and devotion to his students had changed their lives for the better. It was both humbling and inspiring that evening to learn that someone you’ve shared so many Passover Seders singing “Dayyenu” with, someone you have on videotape cradling and cooing over your newborn daughter when she first came home from the hospital, is also a hero to a generation of mechanical engineers, especially to the women and minority students whose academic careers he helped champion at a time when women and minorities were the exception in mechanical engineering.
The story Phil told that evening is a simple one. It concerns John Wheeler, a world-renowned physicist and UT physics professor who passed away a few years ago. He was celebrated for his important work in Einsteinian relativity. He was also a devoted teacher who never stopped teaching courses in freshman and sophomore physics.
Once, late in his career, Professor Wheeler was asked in an interview whether he felt at all slighted or disappointed that – against the expectations of many of his colleagues – he had never been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.
Professor Wheeler responded as follows: “No, I am not at all disappointed about not having won the Nobel Prize, because I have something better. Two of my students have won Nobel Prizes.” At that moment, somewhere in the World To Come, Rabbi Preda smiled and nodded in approval.
Friends, in Judaism, “Torah” in the largest sense means wisdom, learning, truth. The world itself is a kind of Torah. Our lives are Torah. And thus, the stories of Rabbi Preda and John Wheeler, and our stories of our own greatest mentors and teachers, are not just about those who write lesson plans for a living. We are all teachers. We are all students. This is being human.
We learn and we grow from experience, day by day. We learn and we teach: in our joy, in our disappointment, in our success, in our heartache.
And in moments of unselfish sharing of the mind and the heart, when we rejoice in promoting the welfare of another person, we, like Rabbi Preda, move beyond this time and place to taste Eternity.
May the realization of this kind of patience, love and care be our intention and our portion in this New Year. Amen.
blog comments powered by Disqus