What is a successful Jewish education?
Updated: May 6
Thank you, Rabbi Liebenberg, for the very warm introduction and for the opportunity of sharing a few thoughts on this very important occasion and the event of this special dinner, which marks another successful year, thank G-d, of the wonderful work that the Phyllis Jowell School is doing. It’s the new young kid on the block in Cape Town and in just a few short years has established itself as a school of excellence in all areas. A hearty yasher koach and well done go to Rabbi Matthew Liebenberg and his Board of Governors, Rebbetzin Natalie Altman and her staff of teachers, and the parents and children of Phyllis Jowell School for setting such a high standard and achieving so much in this short time. A yasher koach to you all and a very big mazal tov on this occasion on which we celebrate yet another year of success.
The establishment of the Phyllis Jowell School is good news for Cape Town because, of course, as a Cape Jewish community, we all work together. We are strong as a South African Jewish community, and further strengthened because within the Cape Jewish community lies our ability to address the large diversity of needs in our community. In the same way that Cape Jewry and its future is inconceivable without the outstanding work of the Herzlia Schools and Geoff Cohen, the head principal and director of the Herzlia Schools, who is here this evening, so too is the future dynamic growth of Cape Jewry inconceivable without the Phyllis Jowell School. And so, we as the South African Jewish community, as a Cape Jewish community, can look with great pride at the wonderful schools that we have to offer our children – rich in their diversity. It is so wonderful to see the flourishing and the success of the Phyllis Jowell School which adds so much to our community.
It’s also very good news for Jewish literacy. I just wanted to share one thing with you. A few months ago I had the opportunity of seeing a few of the classes in action at the school. I visited a number of the grades and saw how proficiently and excellently the children could read and explain the Chumash. By mid-year, Grade 2 children can read and translate the whole of Parshas Bereishis – the first parsha of the Torah. That’s a remarkable achievement for a child only half way through grade 2. What a gift to give a child. That, together with outstanding secular and general education, is such an important gift which each child is given. Just as a start, it’s such an important part of Jewish literacy to be able to read and translate Parshas Bereishis. Giving our children the gift of the ability to read, translate and understand, with such confidence and love, is a crucial part of Jewish identity. I think that within the classroom situation the school provides an atmosphere of joy and excitement for life and Judaism, as well as a sense of carefree, wonderful warmth and togetherness. There is a vibe and energy emanating from Rebbetzin Altman and her teachers, the sense of joy and passion in doing what they love and transmitting such a special heritage to these children. It’s a joyful, wonderful school. It’s a privilege for our community to be host to such a school and to proudly say that this belongs to us. It is a world class school that sets high standards and is a source of such great pride for us all.
What is the mission of the school? And let’s just ask that question more broadly. What is the mission of Jewish education? What do we strive for, whether as parents or a school? Amazingly enough, one word comes to my mind for Jewish education : independence. We really want independent children. Ideally, a real education is about independence and that’s summed up in the Talmud. The Talmud asks, “What are the duties of a parent to a child”. It’s an important question to ask. What indeed are the duties of a parent to a child? So the Talmud tells us : to teach a child to earn a living, to teach a child how to learn Torah, and then an interesting one, to teach a child how to swim. It mentions these words, and that’s an important part of an education. What does it mean to teach a child how to swim? It is such an important skill because in life, we have to swim – literally and figuratively. This important life skill teaches us to be able to survive in the world with independence. One needs a way of earning a parnassa – a living, in an honest fashion. We need the values contained in the study of Torah, and we need to be able to have the basic skills.
Of course, as with so many things, the great wisdom of the Talmud, given to us by G-d, was thousands of years ahead of its time and teaches us that education is not just about what is contained in books – education is about learning life skills, earning a living, understanding the values that G-d gave us, putting a child on his/her own two feet, enabling them to stand up and live as independent human beings, who can go out into the world to create a better world with free choice. And where does that really come from : G-d Himself. Think about what He did for us. He gave each one of us free choice. Free choice means G-d made us independent of Him. He is our parent, and He made us independent of Him. We can be free to choose between good and evil. We, too, must try let go of our children and send them out into the world to be independent. We want them to do well and to stay on the right path, but ultimately it is their decision. They are free to choose and they walk alone, but we have to give them the tools – the ability to leave our homes, to go out into the world and face university campuses, work places or general society, with pride, determination, identity and a clarity of who they are in order to be able to succeed on their own, without us having to hold their hands. We have a remarkable example of what true Jewish education is in the portions we are currently reading in shul.
Joseph, one of our great forefathers, left home at 17 years old, just below the age of matriculation today. He left home, not out of choice – he was sold into slavery. He had to stand on his own two feet at a young age and he did a remarkably good job of it. Why? The Midrash, the Talmudic interpretation of the Chumash explains that his father, Jacob, taught and gave him life lessons. He taught Joseph Torah and how to understand the world through the eyes of G-d. He gave him the values of Judaism so he could stand on his own two feet and that is exactly what he did. We read about the enormous challenges that Joseph faced. He was sold into slavery and he ended up working for a man named Potifar, who the Chumash describes as “sar hatabachim” which literally translated means, the “minister of the butchers”, but he was not a minister of meat, he was the chief execution officer of Pharaoh. And so here is Joseph, at 17 years old, working for this man, who was the right hand thug of the dictator at that time. You imagine the pressures that were brought to bear upon young Joseph working in such as environment. And what are we told? Firstly, that he was incredibly successful – “vayehi ish matzliach”. The Chumash tells us that he was remarkably successful. He did well at whatever he touched. More remarkably, we learn that it is not only good enough in life to excel at something, but we must stick to our morals, values and principles, and what it means to be a Jew. Says the verse in the Chumash, “Vayar Adonav” – and his master saw, “Ki Hashem Ito” – that G-d was with him – “vekol asher hu ose” – in whatever he was doing, “Hashem matzliach beyado” – G-d made him successful in his hands. So here you have Potifar who was a rough individual, a murderer, an executioner, who was a pagan – he didn’t understand the belief in G-d; but when he saw Joseph’s success in his home, he knew that this young man’s success came from one place only, and that was from G-d Himself. How did he know? Rashi tells us that whenever Joseph spoke he said, “Thank G-d” and “Please G-d,” and that he brought a sense of morality and dignity with him. He carried his principles with him wherever he went and that is what true Jewish education is about.
We do not only learn to produce people who are successful in the endeavours of life, whether in professions or business or whatever it may be, but we learn too to produce people of principle, dignity and standing, who go out in the world with a sense of pride and Jewish identity, of who they are, and who can stand up and be Jewish in any environment in the world. That is the power of Joseph. He could stand up to be a proud Jew in the heart of pagan Egypt, no matter what his surrounding values were. After that he was falsely accused and thrown into jail. He was in the dungeons of Egypt. Again, we are told that the head of the prisons saw, it says, “Vayehi Hashem et Josef” – that G-d was with Joseph, “Vayeit eilav chesed vayitev chino ve ein asah beit hasohar” – the head of the prisons saw his “chayn”. Whats that word “chayn”? You know that Yiddish word ‘chayn’, you can’t translate it. It’s grace, it’s dignity, there is something. Joseph had chayn. Even in the dark dungeons of Egypt, he had chayn. We read how he saw his fellow prisoners and asked them what was wrong. He saw people whose faces were downcast, and he greeted them. He was kind and compassionate. He had derech eretz. He did all of this despite being away from home, in a foreign country, with no hope of returning home, lost from his father and betrayed by his brothers. He was stuck in a dungeon as a result of a false accusation. But he never lost his faith, his dignity, his principles or his identity. All shone through the darkness of Egypt. Joseph’s light shone because he had principles, beliefs, a sense of a value system and he knew who he was.
And then he is called out of the dungeon to interpret Pharoah’s dreams. And Pharaoh says, “I am going to tell you my dreams”, and Joseph says to Pharoah, with all humility, knowing that his whole freedom rests on his ability to interpret these dreams, “I can’t interpret your dreams, that is in the hands of G-d. I will tell you whatever G-d tells me, it’s not mine – it belongs to Hashem.” When he interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and tells Pharoah that a famine is imminent, Pharoah knows that he has to appoint someone who could help Egypt in the economic crises it was about to face. And Pharaoh says, and you see these words in the Chumash – “Vayomer Pharoah” – and Pharaoh said to his servants, “Hanimzto kazek ish asher ruach elokim bo” – is there any man in the whole kingdom of Egypt (which was the super-power of the time) – is there any man who has the spirit of G-d in him like this man? “Ein navon vechacham kamocha” – there is no man wise and as brilliant as you Joseph. This is what Pharaoh said to Joseph. So here you have this young Hebrew slave standing before Pharaoh after all that he has been through, and he stands upright, with dignity and his principles in place, to the extent that he is so impressive to Pharaoh, that Pharaoh says, “Ein navon vechacham kamocha” – there is no one as brilliant as you. He appoints him Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Egypt. What a remarkable achievement at the age of 30 after his wanderings, leaving home at such a young age and going through so many difficulties. This is what he was able to achieve because he stuck to his principles and he was given a proper education, enabling him walk out of his father’s home at the age of 17 and to stand on his own two feet.
And listen to the way that the Rashbam, one of our commentators, explains the word “navon”. What does it mean to be a “navon”? A navon is a person of intelligence and understanding, “mehvin atidot veroeh hanolad” – a person who can see the future with vision and understanding and what is coming in the world. What is a chacham? We are told of a chacham : “Kibeitz chochma mi mah sheraah ve shama” – he gathers wisdom from everything he has heard and seen. Isn’t that a beautiful expression? These two Hebrew words – “navon” and a “chacham” : a navon has the vision, a chacham gathers all of the knowledge and insights he has seen around him, together with “ruach Elokim” – the Spirit of G-d.
These three values constitute what we want for our children. We want children who are raised in a value system that will give them “ruach Elokom” – the Spirit of G-d, that people can see their values, principles, dignity and their shining light. We want children who are “navon”, “navonim” – who have vision and can see the future. Who have the capacity to see the big picture of the world. We want children who are “chachamim” – wise. To be wise is to be constantly amassing and accumulating knowledge and an understanding of the world, learning from everything one sees and does. And how do we achieve that? Very simply – in the same way that Joseph did. As the verse expresses, “ki ner mitzvah ve Torah Ohr” – the mitzvot, the commandments of G-d are aflame, and the Torah is light. When explaining that verse, the Talmud tells us that the world we live in is often like a dark forest filled with dangers. In a sense, at the beginning of the 21st century, the world is filled with many uncertainties. There are globalisation and its impact, economic downturn throughout the world, rising anti-Semitism, the rise of the nuclear Iran, assimiliation – all kinds of pressures in the international and local scene. And we are sending our children to find their way in this confusing world of huge challenges – this dynamic and changing world, filled with opportunities, but dangers too. How do we ensure that our children turn out like Joseph? How do they go out into the world to be “matzliach” – to be successful in their professions, their businesses, in building their families, but doing so with “Ruach Elokim” – with the Spirit of G-d?
The way we do that is by giving them a Jewish education of excellence and of the highest standard, and so too a secular, general education of excellence and high standard. These are the values of the Phyllis Jowell School – to equip our children for the future, to give them strength, clarity, pride and the ability to think for themselves. We give them a sense of whom they are, a moral vision about what the future holds, with the knowledge that they have to go out into the world with dignity, with pride, with dynamism and with a sense of what a privilege it is to be a Jew and to have the heritage that we come from, with thousands of years of G-d’s Wisdom behind us. We don’t go out into the world alone : each one of our children goes out into the world with us behind them, with an entire heritage of Sages, and wisdom, and energy, and power, and generations of righteous people standing by them to lead them out into the world and to make this world a better place.
G-d bless and thank you.