When I transferred to Ner Israel in tenth grade I faced a number of challenges. Much to my surprise math class was more of a challenge for me than Gemara class. Growing up, I was always fond of math. So much so, that by the time I had reached eighth grade I was enrolled in the University of Buffalo gifted math program. This program offered advanced math classes for students grades 8-12. The teachers were excellent, and by the end of the program students had the opportunity to earn college credit before graduating high-school. Aside from being advanced, the methodology of the UB gifted math program was also unique.
They were extremists in understanding all details of mathematics and they would never allow their students to work with shallow preconceived concepts. For example, they devoted an entire section to additive inverse and multiplicative inverse. They developed their own special symbols for each, and they assigned work with equations that used these numbers. Only towards the end of the section did they reveal that -5 isn’t simply “negative five,” it is the additive inverse of five, and the bottom half of a fraction is the multiplicative inverse of that number.
When I transferred to Ner Israel, math class was very different. The teacher was a brilliant
mathematician, but he was very old-fashioned in his teaching style. He wrote the equations on the
board, students would copy them into their notebooks, and the test would be exactly what was on the
board. This worked well for many students, but not for me. (Perhaps, because of the training I had just
received from the UB gifted math program.) I was always left to wonder, why? Why does that equation
work? I asked the teacher on multiple occasions to explain. With almost a puzzled look, wondering
what I didn’t get, he would proceed to repeat the equation verbally exactly as it appeared on the board.
I responded that I knew what was on the board, but I didn’t understand it. With an even more puzzled
look, he would repeat the equation again. After a few of these frustrating experiences, I learned to copy
what was on the board into my notebook, and memorize it for the test.
In the beginning of this week’s Parsha, the Torah gives a little extra description as to how Moshe should teach the Jewish people: “And these are the ordinances that you shall place before them.” The Torah doesn’t simply say that you shall teach them, but that “you shall place before them.” Rashi comments with an explanation from our Sages (Mechilta and Talmud Bavli, Eiruvin 54B). Hashem is telling Moshe not to think that he can teach the people two or three times until they memorize the laws and he doesn’t need to bother himself to explain all the reasons and explanations. Hashem therefore tells Moshe to “place it before them” like a table that is set and ready to eat.
Rashi’s commentary is teaching us a critical aspect in Torah education. It’s not enough to memorize the facts; reasoning and understanding is critical. It’s important for us to recognize that we are all educators. Torah education is not limited to the day-school classroom, or to the Yeshiva bais medrash, as we live as Jews we are constantly teaching Torah Judaism to all those around us. This is especially true for parents; raising children in a Jewish home is one of the most significant elements of Torah education that our children receive.
It is therefore important for all of us to think about this Rashi.
As we teach our children and all those around us, let’s not forget to explain why we do what we do. We need to transmit the beauty of the Torah with its depth and reason, together with the practical how-to. May we all merit the clarity and opportunity to lay out the teachings of the Torah as a set table.