March 11th, 2022 | 8th of Adar II, 5782 | Vayikra וַיִּקְרָא
Message from Lisa Exler, Director of Jewish Studies and Ivrit
Dear Beit Rabban Community,
This week I had the privilege of attending the first of six professional development seminars as part of my participation in the Mandel Teacher Educator Institute (MTEI). MTEI is a two-year cohort-based program that brings together Jewish educational leaders from around the country to explore best practices and “big ideas” in teacher education and professional development.
During our opening session we learned the following mishnah in chavruta:
Rabbi Nechunyah ben HaKanah would offer a brief prayer when he entered the Beit Midrash [house of study] and when he left.
They [his students or colleagues] said to him:
What is the nature [literally "the place"] of this prayer?
He said to them:
When I enter, I pray that no mishap [or "offense"; literally it means "stumbling"] should occur because of me;
and when I leave, I offer thanksgiving for my lot.
(Mishnah Brachot 4:2)
I’d like to share three insights from this text study:
The importance of slowing down and setting intentions. Rabbi Nechunyah didn’t just walk into the Beit Midrash and start teaching; he paused and offered this short prayer. And since his students noticed and asked him about it, we can imagine that his pause was long enough to make an impression on the people around him. In a world in which things are moving so quickly, Rabbi Nechunyah offers us the model of pausing, slowing down and setting our intentions for what we are about to do.
The importance of recognizing that, despite our intentions, things can go wrong. The content of Rabbi Nechunyah’s prayer is sobering. We can imagine him walking into the Beit Midrash, anxious and worried because he can’t control all of the things that will happen in the Beit Midrash that day. A student might misunderstand him, which could lead to errors in the practice of Judaism (like eating something that isn’t kosher or giving less than the required amount to tzedakah). Or, he might say something that offends or hurts a student or colleague. Or, his students may interact with one another in problematic ways that he fails to notice or address. While we might not share Rabbi Nechunyah’s burden of being a decisor of Jewish law, we likely do share the awareness that our communications and interactions with others are complex and that there is potential for others to stumble or take offense because of something we say or do.
The importance of gratitude. The awareness of the possibility of harm might make it hard to feel gratitude; we live in a world full of risk and vulnerability. But at the end of his work day, Rabbi Nechunyah offered a prayer of thanksgiving. He didn’t express gratitude that everything went right, because maybe not everything did and because, more likely, he could not have known for sure whether anyone stumbled in the Beit Midrash that day. Instead, he simply expressed gratitude for his portion in life, for the fact that, despite the risks, he got to go to the Beit Midrash every day, to teach and to learn; to build relationships with his colleagues, students and Torah; and to engage in work that was meaningful.
My chavruta and I wondered about what kind of environment existed in Rabbi Nechunyah’s Beit Midrash that allowed him to move from a place of stress or anxiety in the morning to a place of gratitude in the evening. We imagined, based on his prayer, that it might have been one of intention and attentiveness, one of respect, one in which dangers and problems were named and addressed, one in which clear communication and strong relationships were valued, and one in which gratitude was felt and expressed.
Whether we spend our days in a Beit Midrash, school, or anywhere else, I hope that we can take Rabbi Nechunyah’s prayers to heart and build a community based on these values so that we can truly end each day with gratitude.