The First Step

1.16     Rabban Gamliel taught:

Select a master-teacher for yourself so that you avoid doubtful decisions; do not make a habit of tithing by estimate.

It’s interesting that this teaching should fall on this Shabbat: As readers who saw my post this past Thursday should already know, Rosh HaShanah—the Jewish new year—was just days ago. The holiest day in all Judaism is only days away now: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the Sabbath of Sabbaths.

The period between these two high holy days is called the Days of Awe, and there’s always ten of them. This is a special Shabbat then, that it should fall in these ten days: It’s Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath of Return—a fitting name, being as that the ideal of Yom Kippur is teshuvah, returning to God (in that our sins have caused us to stray from God, to whom we must now return, as we must always do, in the end). I could probably elaborate further, but to do so would lead to an entire post on this special Shabbat, and that is not my intention.

My intention is to speak about teachers, specifically what’s implied by this teaching. And, of course, to state why this is a special teaching for this special Shabbat.

I’ll start with the obvious. The teachers we select for ourselves—and not only the teachers we learn from in school, but all those who teach us anything, all of those who we take as role models and try to emulate in our habits and ways—direct the path we follow. When we cling to our teachers, when we take role models and strive to become like them, we give up a bit of ourselves in favor of what we’d like to become: We have made them our masters.

That’s what is meant, I feel, by master-teachers: Not a teacher who’s a master at the craft, and not a master who conveniently teaches, but someone to whom we submit ourselves to learn from. It could be things like calculus or physics, or things like manners or kindness, but no matter what the lessons may be, we have chosen to take them and to incorporate them into who we are, and that is the fundamental difference between masters and teachers and master-teachers.

Rabban Gamliel tosses us a little twist, however: We are to choose master-teachers so that we may avoid doubtful decisions. He does not say to select your teachers to avoid false decisions; such implies we choose teachers only to learn what is correct or incorrect. Neither does he say to choose masters to avoid hard decisions; such would imply we choose masters to make decisions for us, not to teach us how to make decisions for ourselves.

Instead he says this, to choose a master-teacher to help us avoid doubtful decisions. All Jewish laws aim to accomplish one thing; the Torah itself is a manual on holiness. We follow our mitzvot—our commandments—to become righteous and like God, to become a holy nation worthy of God’s love and compassion, his justice and his mercy. We choose role models to follow to avoid decisions wherein we don’t know what is right or wrong, those decisions we can’t distinguish the holy from the unholy, the good from the bad.

If we recklessly take as teacher a man from the streets, who steals and fights and does all manner of detestable things, are we to believe that because he is our master, we should follow in his ways when the law says otherwise? Indeed, merely thinking this way provokes doubt. Instead, we must carefully choose our teachers—our life models, we could say, as they don’t merely teach us, but lead us toward who want to become—so there is no question what is right and what is wrong. If we wish to be like our righteous teacher, how much easier is it to become righteous ourselves? If we want to become like kind and strong master, how much easier is it to follow in these footsteps than to follow those of someone hateful and weak?

There’s a second part to this teaching, as there are to most, that would be foolish to ignore. Rabban Gamliel reminds us not to make a habit of tithing by estimate, but what exactly does this mean to us? A tithe is a tax or a price, or anything of the sort, and tithing can be paying that tithe or receiving it. So to tithe by estimate would be to live life approximating everything: We buy approximately ten apples for approximately three dollars, to serve approximately four people approximately on Sunday, at approximately noon. If we estimate everything, we dull the edges of anything we think about—we lose the crisp exactness that makes life memorable, instead making everything a vague assumption not a clear fact.

This, too, is special today. Shabbat Shuva is not merely the Sabbath of Return, but also the first Sabbath of the new year. Fresh off tashlich, freed of the sins we cast away, it is now time to forge new habits, to take one more step—the first of hopefully many this coming year—toward becoming who we want to be. The process is long, and hard, and there will inevitably be times when we wish to turn back or turn another way, toward one that is faster and easier, but we don’t want to aim for something close to what we want to be: We want to be exact, we want to be clear, we want to be truthful both to who we are and who we want to be and honest about the path we must take and the master-teachers we must follow to get there.

The most beautiful pictures and scenes in this world are not blurs, not vague approximations of something, of anything, but those images that are clearest to us, whether concrete or abstract, that speak directly to us and to who we want to become. Do we want to see through half-squinting eyes all the glory around us? Or do we want to seize this newness and make the most of it, to make the most of us?

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