memories and lessons

December 31, 2015, Israel

Jewish grain merchants, town square, SÅ‚omniki, Poland

Lessons are everywhere. Life is an ongoing process of learning. If you are still alive it is a sign you are still meant to be learning. We are in the school of life, forever. 

Lessons are strange. I am still learning from my high school and college experience. Yes, amazing, I am still learning, but not what I thought I would be learning, not the "material" that was assigned to us but the hidden life lessons in-between the lines.  When I was in university I focused on the Cold War, the stock market, Wall Street, theories of markets and economies, Marx and Engels, Hobbes and Rousseau, but other lessons would come, years later.

Years later, decades later, lessons would sink in: A man who has wisdom but not the ability to explain it, cannot be a teacher. A teacher is not necessarily one who "can do" but one who can give. A teacher focuses on others, a champion focuses on himself. Guiding others through life, i.e. being a true life teacher, is the greatest profession. And you can be a teacher in any line of work. Lessons do not have to be in a school building, they can be on the subways of New York City.

Grades mean nothing in the long term. Years later we do not remember our grades, all we remember are our life lessons. Knowledge fades, wisdom grows, teachers who only gave you knowledge are soon forgotten, but a teacher who inspires you to study, to search, is with you for life. I can see see Rabbi Cohen, his eyes full of life, looking up to heaven, pounding on the table, "But why?" Rabbi Heisler's eyes seemed to be in the world of scholars, far removed from our mundane daily reality, and Rabbi Wehls' eyes imploring you to find the truth, to set priorities in life, uncompromising, a man on a mission.

My teachers gave me a love for truth, for the analytical study that comes from the Talmud, for the beauty of knowing your history and the thirst for knowledge.

Humility: I studied with some world renown geniuses, only I did not know it at the time. They were devoid of ego. At times they had to put me in my place, years later I thank them. Yes, I was a bright upstart and I challenged my teachers, respectfully, the intellectual battles are typical of our people. They challenged me and made me fight for my point of view. Today I hold their point of view. The lessons emerge over time in a fertile ground. We grow, we mature, we learn, we absorb. The lessons only came to me years later.

I can picture some of my teachers; men and women of stature, full of passion, sharp and insightful.

But there is more, there are living memories. There is that look in the eye of a teacher that draws you into his personal memories, his passions, and takes you to places you have never been, to experience what he experienced, to see a life from long ago, to see a world you never lived in, to feel what you have never felt before.

Through the eyes of the teacher you can travel to a distant past or to an unimagined future, or to a parallel existence. 

A rabbi stands in front of you but he has one foot firmly planted in the past and on foot stretching into the future as he speaks with the fervor of a prophet of old. His memories go back to Auschwitz, to the synagogues of Poland, to the expulsions from Spain and Portugal, to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, to the forefathers of our people. We remember and we live it.

My memories extend far beyond my own limited lifetime. My life lessons are not only from my own limited experiences. With me is the immigrant experience of my grandparents, the Brooklyn experience of my father, dreams and hopes, what it was like growing up before we had the State of Israel, the Third Jewish commonwealth.

I see the pain of the Shtetel Jew; the Jew living in poverty in small villages throughout Europe. But I see the beauty and the joy as well, the rich heritage. I see the Jew who worked all day every day but when the holy Sabbath came, no matter how poor he was he became a king, he raised his glass of wine and his voice soared to heaven. He debated the meaning of life with others as if the world depended on it. I see the Jew who clutched his holy books for dear life, cherishing them as the precious jewels that they are, for he who has wisdom lacks nothing.   

I see the glory of mankind and the humility. The memories become the lessons. The quest, to search for more, to hunger for answers. The look in a teacher's eye, the look that stays with you forever, that never dies even when our teachers pass from this earth. A sparkle, a hint of pain, but a hint of love, a soul. 

The softness in the eyes of a parent, our first and most important teachers...with us forever in eternity. Memories; the lessons of life. 

Books by Moshe Katz

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