The Holiness of Teaching

September 1, 2007
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Mimi Feigelson

The relationship between teachers and students has taken on multiple forms and shapes in our tradition. The Zohar (III 153a) sees them as the sun and moon — the foundation of our world. The Rambam (Avot 1, 6) equates that relationship to the highest form of friendship. The Chernobyl Rebbe, the Maor Aynayim, perceives their connection as the kiddushin (matrimony) of husband and wife.

The first word in the Torah, “B’reishit,” is read in Seder Raba D’Breishit as the acronym of six words that to my understanding explain the potential and the actuality of what transforms teaching into a holy and Godly endeavor:

“B’reishit: There is no B’reishit other than six attributes of the acts of an artisan/governess, and these are:

  1. Bet – B’niyut, building
  2. Reish – R’kimut, embroidering
  3. Alef – Amitzut, steadfast-holding/strengthening
  4. Shin – Sharshut, enrooting
  5. Yud – Y’shivut, sitting/stabilizing
  6. Tav – T’michut, supporting/upholding

The Holy-One, Blessed-Be-S/He said: B’reishit, I built, I embroidered, I strengthened, I enrooted, I sat/stabilized, I upheld, the heavens and the earth.”

These six Divine attributes should drive us to make manifest the holiness of teaching: Can teachers embody these demands when in the presence of their students? Do students have the experience of “B’reishit moments” when encountering their teachers?

These are the guidelines and challenges:

Building: Do our students walk away greater than when they walked in? Is more of who they are available to them?

Embroidering: Do our students have a greater capacity to adorn the garments of their souls in new ways? Do they have the tools to weave together parts of themselves that previously felt disconnected?

Steadfast-holding/Strengthening: Do our students turn away feeling held by their teachers? Do they feel that they are walking in God’s world with a loyal partner? Do they have a sense of resilience that has been enriched?

Enrooting: What part of ourselves, as teachers, have we planted in our students’ hearts? What part of God’s world do they call “home”?

Sitting/Stabilizing: In this ever-evolving world, do we offer our students a sense of stability? Do we gift them with a sense of security and freedom that enables them to explore the world?

Supporting/Upholding: Do our students know that no matter where they find themselves, no matter how far or low they wander, we, their teachers, will find them and nurture them to resilience and independence?

It is in the interplay of light and darkness, the meeting of heaven and earth, that godliness is encountered. It is here that the teacher/student relationship acquires an element of holiness, sanctity.

The Talmud teaches that the Torah was transmitted as black fire on white fire, and we, in line with this tradition, must maintain the integrity of the black letters along with the white spaces of the parchment to render a Sefer Torah (a Torah scroll) fit for sacramental reading. Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev teaches that two letters glued as one would compromise the manifestation of the white spaces — the words of revelation complete but the silence and secret of revelation blemished. The holiness of teaching is created when both realms are embraced — the known and unknown, the past and future, the revealed and the ever-unfolding. Teachers and students alike are configured from black letters and white spaces. In that encounter, students and teachers embrace in the realm of holiness.

I recite Tehillim/Psalm 121 prior to every class that I teach and every meeting that I have with one of my students. I’ve been saying this several times a day for the past fifteen years. I do this to acknowledge the mystery and blessing of the encounter that is going to take place. I do this to honor the unknown and the journey my students and I are to embark upon — like one who recites Tefillat Ha-Derech (the traveller’s prayer). I do this as an act of gratitude for the trust and love that we will share, regardless of the content of the learning or conversation that is going to take place. I do this as a humbling agent as I dwell between “anyone who has taught the child of their friend Torah it is as if they have birthed them” and “my help is from God, Creator of heaven and earth.”

I have been birthed in my life by many blessed men and women. I have birthed in my life, thank God, many beloved and holy children. “Eli, Eli, sh’lo yigamer l’olam”/My God, My God, May this never end. (Chana Senesh)

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Reb Mimi Feigelson ( is Mashpiah Ruchanit and Lecturer of Rabbinic Literature at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism), Los Angeles. She is an Orthodox-Israeli rabbi and an international Chassidut teacher and storyteller.

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