Every once in a while, you get lucky enough to study with teachers who make subjects come alive, who bring passion and erudition to what you learn together, who serve as living role models. Rarer still is if you get all this in one person. Perhaps this is why Ethics of the Fathers recommends that when you find a true teacher, you must actively make that teacher into your teacher. “Sit at the dust of their feet, and drink in their words thirstily” (1:4).
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik has a beautiful essay on the role of the teacher and sage in a new collections of his writings: Halakhic Morality: Essays on Ethics and Masorah. To fulfill the mandate to sit at the feet of scholars, he writes, a person must be willing to submit to the authority of the teacher. This, for Rabbi Soloveitchik, is not only within the intellectual realm but also in what he calls “a volitional-emotional gesture.” He also says that a student must “surrender to one’s teacher on an ontic level.” I know what you’re thinking. I have no idea what he’s talking about. Here, the Rav elaborates on a relationship that very few have with a master teacher: “To be in the presence of the master is a joy which borders on rhapsody. To be away from him is anguish. The pupil is always lonesome for his master and driven by an irresistible passion to him.” Reverence also creates a sense of distance, the separation we create out of respect.
Few have this relationship with a teacher because very few students invest in relationships with teachers. They may feel intimidated or not smart enough. Often, students think that the teacher should do the work of investment. But that is where the Rav challenges us: sit at their feet, and you will be changed because of this meaningful friendship. Don’t ask them to come to you. But know, that being a good teacher means waiting for students who seek this relationship and devoting yourself to them once they devote themselves to you.
I was thinking about this essay when I learned of the death of a beloved teacher the week before Passover, Rabbi Amnon Haramati. He taught in the Yeshivah of Flatbush for 45 years; a former head of the school estimated that upon his retirement, Rabbi Haramati likely taught 10,000 students. During his retirement, he taught hundreds of classes to adults and was constantly sought out as a resource. And, just as the teacher is a role model, Rabbi Haramti embodied the gifts of patience, tenacity, religious moderation and tolerance and a mission to make the world a better place through knowledge.
Before he arrived in the classroom as a teacher at the ripe age of 16, Rabbi Haramati's life was intertwined with the birth of the State of Israel. He was born in 1930 in Jerusalem, where he was buried. At 17, in 1948, he fought in the War of Independence, armed with a rifle, one hand grenade and four bullets. He was severely injured, declared dead and found alive in a morgue by a nurse. He then suffered blindness and regained his sight. His brain injuries were such that he was told he would never be able to retain information. This is all the more astounding to anyone who studied with him because of the vast and breathless mastery he had of so much Tanakh. His life was one miracle after another.
The afternoon before he was suddenly taken from our community, I saw him shopping with his wife of 64 years. I wished them both a joyous Passover, and they wished me the same. Imagine the shock of finding out that Rabbi Haramati collapsed the next morning on his way to synagogue. At his shiva, I was told to peek into his study. His books were open on his desk, that was covered with his Hebrew notes for a class he had given the night before on the theme of Passover. And there was his watch, between the notes, measuring time even though its owner could no longer.
In scores of places I've traveled, when asked where I live, I respond, “Silver Spring.” Someone would often follow-up with another question, "Oh, do you know Rabbi Haramati? He taught me." I would send Rabbi Haramati regards, and he would say "Hu haya ha-talmid sheli." He was my student, as if this relationship lasted long after graduation. This is what I wrote to his son when I heard the news. “Henry Adams said, 'A teacher effects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.’ Your father's heart may have stopped beating, but his influence will never stop because he ushered generations of students into the depth and richness of our tradition.”
May his memory be for a blessing. May it stir us to find other great teachers and to sit at their feet.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover