With Teacher Appreciation Week upon us (beginning on May 8), I’d like to first thank all the teachers who have devoted their careers to helping others grow. Teaching is among the noblest of roles in our society. One teacher compared her job to the filling of buckets. She couldn’t do it, she said, unless her own bucket was kept filled… because the more she filled herself, the more she had to offer her students.
A teacher imparts so much more than knowledge–they fill hearts and spirits, too. So it is with each of us. We are each here to learn and teach, to teach and to learn in this great classroom of life. The question is, what will we teach, and what will we choose to learn?
How we conduct ourselves in the world speaks volumes about us, and often, that volume is louder than our own ears realize. We teach (knowingly or not) when we’re with our families, our colleagues, our communities, and those we meet in daily interactions. We teach by doing… and we teach by not doing. And if we want to know the messages we’re conveying, we need only look around us. We know that it’s our spirits, not our minds or bodies, that are the true transmitters of energy. Are we seeing smiles on the faces of those in our company? Are we calming tense situations and adding joy to the mundane? Is the energy lighter and brighter when we leave a place than it was when we first arrived? Pay attention, and you’ll know where there’s work to be done.
So how do we fill our own buckets–not just with more information, but most importantly from a kabbalistic standpoint–with more Light? The key lies in what every teacher by trade knows well: a great teacher needs first to be a great student. That requires cultivating a deep desire to grow our own wisdom so that what we share takes on an illuminated quality.
The Rav and Karen Berg, two of my greatest teachers, understood and modeled this idea up until their final days on this earth. They both continued to learn, grow, and expand the reach of their light, teaching and learning at every opportunity. If anything, the darkest times drew the Rav towards gathering and dispersing more, not less, wisdom. He often reminded his students that true learning requires a measure of resistance. Just as a light bulb relies on the resistance in its coil to glow, so do we need to work against (or despite or through) something to grow our own light. Whether it’s the difficulty of the material we’re learning, the challenges we’re facing in our lives, or our own natural tendencies that resist that learning, kabbalah teaches that it’s the opposition, not the clear path, that connects us to the greatest Light.
Michelangelo claimed that David was already in the stone; he needed only to chip away what was not David to bring his masterpiece into the world. Likewise, the great teacher in us relies on that great student to step up. That means soldiering through all the excuses and distractions and connecting with the great teachers around us. They are everywhere! What’s important is that we go to whatever lengths needed to find them. Is your next great teacher a yoga guru? A rabbi? A thinker whose books are centuries old?
And beyond the illuminated masters, there’s always something to be learned from everyone and everything around us. We can learn from the taxi driver, the checkout person at the grocery store, the love of a pet. We can look to nature and emulate its rhythms and adaptability… and we can learn humility and patience from the passage of time.
Sometimes, we may believe that we are the teacher, only to later realize that we were, even more so, the student. For instance, a mother may instruct her children on the A’s to Z’s of life, but inevitably, she will learn more from them than she can ever imagine. Among my own lessons: through David, our eldest, I’ve learned to stay open and curious to what life brings. Miriam has shown me more about being more free-spirited, confident, and joyful. Josh continually shows (and inspires) a kindness that is truly rare in this world… and Abigail is our brave problem-solver who balances that gift with an equal dose of empathy.
Of course, there are times when our life’s teachers show us who or what we don’t want to be. I remember when others tried to “instruct” me on what I shouldn’t or couldn’t do, or how I would surely fail if I followed this path. But in the end, they were instruments of my resolve. They helped me learn how to silence the negativity and to instead trust myself. To push myself. And through their “non-example,” I was propelled into my own becoming.
Rav Ashlag taught that we often need to fall in order to rise–a truth I’ve lived more than a few times. Last week, I heard an interview with Michael J. Fox, a major star in the 1980s (if you haven’t seen Back to the Future, get your popcorn popping, stat!). Since his diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease in the early 90s, Michael has shared his journey with astounding optimism and humor. As he put it, Parkinson’s “shook [him] awake” in ways that made his life richer and more meaningful. Despite broken bones, a tumor scare, and many other debilitating setbacks, Michael has authored three books, acted in several tv shows and movies, and created the Michael J. Fox Foundation (which has streamed over $1.5 billion into research and help for people with Parkinson’s). As journalist Nate Burleson remarked, “[Michael’s] public fight has given private strength to millions.” And that is how one teaches by example.
This week (and beyond), make an effort to thank the teachers who have made a difference in your life. Write a letter to a former professor who inspired you. Tell a boss, a colleague, a relative (perhaps even your child), or a friend how their example has illuminated your path. And pay attention to what and how you are teaching others through your own doing, saying, and being.
Most of all, never underestimate your power to influence the present and the future! Work through the resistance to get closer to the Light. Because the more you fill your own bucket, the more of that Light you’ll have to pour out into the world.
Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!