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09/24/2013 01:17 pm ET | Updated Nov 24, 2013

Teaching by Modeling: Living With Inspiration

We can preach and teach all day long but if we don't live those values there will be no power of influence. Transformative education happens through mentorship and a life of modeled virtue. A Talmudic tale:

Rabbi Yohanan stood and kissed Elazar on the head. Rabbi Yohanan said, "Blessed is G-d, the Lord of Israel, who gave such a son to Abraham our father; for he knows how to understand, and investigate, and expound upon the works of the Chariot (a particular mystical revelation). There are those who preach well, yet they do not practice. There are those who practice well, but they cannot preach. You practice what you preach! Happy are you, Abraham our father, that Elazar ben Arakh is your offspring!" (Haggigah 14b).

The study of Torah cannot remain academic. Torah must be lived. The rabbis taught the danger of merely studying Torah from the outside but missing the soul of the tradition.

Rabbi Yishmael bar Rabbi Yose said: One who studies Torah in order to teach, is given the means to study and to teach; and one who studies in order to practice, is given the means to study and to teach, to observe and to practice (Avot 4:6).

One cannot be a true "teacher" without observing and practicing what they study and teach. This is not so easy when one is an idealistic dreamer who teaches many profound values.

For example, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion did not just preach the values of equality when he read the Proclamation of Independence. He frequently modeled them in humble ways. One example: Ben-Gurion actually used to receive hundreds of letters (too many for him to answer on his own). He saw one was from three out-of-work Arabs. He spent most of that afternoon calling people in the government to find them jobs (Ben-Gurion, Builder of Israel, 105). This was not easy or typical in the 1950s amidst continued conflict.

I can recall as a child watching my father speak to the homeless with such respect, my mentor Rabbi Avi Weiss hugging every maintenance custodian he met, my dear wife modestly showing care for others when it seems no one is watching, and my high school teacher spending her free time to challenge me in my thinking and direction. These role models shaped my character more than any words they spoke.

A child watches her parent very closely. It is not in the moment of dinner table lesson that a value will be inculcated. It is typically in watching how a child's parents talk to one another, how one's father speaks with the cashier, and how one's mother converses with a frustrating telemarketer. To teach virtue one must model virtue. To parent with values one must live with those values consistently even when one thinks that no one is watching.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, the first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, taught: "The pure righteous do not complain of the dark, but increase the light; they do not complain of evil, but increase justice; they do not complain of heresy, but increase faith; they do not complain of ignorance, but increase wisdom."

Rav Kook lived up to this teaching as a tremendous force of proactive good. Our role is to be a source of light and to walk with light. It is all too easy to profess virtue, but to live with virtue is the real challenge. It is all too easy to enter polemics complaining about the system, but we must work to change the system each day of our lives to further a more just and holy society.

The Chofetz Chaim told a story about kindness done at great sacrifice, starting in Hungary before World War 2:

The townspeople employed a rebbi to teach their boys, but they were unable to pay him .... Instead, the parents took turns providing meals for him.... After many years, the rebbi's wife died, his children moved away and he was left alone. No longer able to teach, he was replaced by a new rebbi.... Only one woman felt a continued obligation to support the man who had taught her children so well.... For five years, until the end of the rebbi's life, she repeated her daily climb of the stairs to his small apartment to bring him his lunch.

... the war quickly crushed the small Jewish community's tenuous existence. The woman, however, ...died of natural causes. Most of the townspeople were herded away to their deaths, but this woman's grandchildren...were led to a small apartment, where a brave gentile woman risked her life to hide them...[and] provided their meals.... Her apartment sustained several raids and searches, but her "fugi¬tives" were never discovered.

When they emerged from hiding, the children learned that their refuge had once belonged to a different tenant -- the old rebbi their grandmother had fed. The same stairs the gentile woman climbed, bearing their provisions, had born their grandmother upward as well, on a mission of chesed that, decades later, saved their lives.

Living with kindness inspires others to act. Sometimes it may even "inspire" the heavens to offer support on earth in miraculous ways we may never expect. Ultimately, though, "we do not rely upon miracles." We must live with inspiration and radical giving expecting nothing in return. This will not only help others in need but also set a model so desperately needed today.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."