The First Day of School - on Nehama's Birthday

By: rabbi jay kelman |

For thousands of children, not to mention parents, the day after Labour Day marks the unofficial end of summer. The long lazy summer days of camp, vacation, and sleeping in abruptly come to an end as the new school year begins. Car pools, lunch, homework, tests and, most importantly, formal learning become the new norm.

During my days as an accountant, the day after Labour Day meant little. No longer did I have the summer off, and for many of those years I was single, meaning Labour Day meant little more than a long weekend. But being back in the classroom – having the merit to educate (I hope) precious Jewish teenagers – once again I feel the change of season that comes with Labour Day.

This year, the first day of school – at least in Ontario – coincides with the 3rd day of Elul. I mention this not because it allows for four full weeks of school before Yom Tov – whereas last year we had three days – but because for our community, the third of Elul is of special importance. It is the yahrzeit of Rabbi Abraham Issac Kook, something that is relatively well known. What is less known is that the 3rd of Elul is also the birthday of Nehama Leibowitz. These two Torah giants of the 20th century were born forty years apart, forty representing a Biblical generation. Both from Latvia, they made their way at a relatively young age – Rav Kook was 39 and Nehama 25 - to what was then Palestine. I do not think I would be overstating the case to say that one would be hard pressed to come up with two other people who had greater influence on the Religious Zionist world than they.

I had the pleasure of being a student in Nehama’s (as she insisted on being called) Tanach class during my year spent in the Gruss Kollel in Jerusalem and I share a few, very few memories of that wonderful year.

For starters, Nehama made it perfectly clear that you came to class – on time – every week or you did not come at all. This was not a country club where one came and left as one pleased. You came to class with a Mikarot Gedolot on Breisheet and a Tanach – and you did not forget them. Tape recorders (that is what we had back in the 80’s) were not allowed, not only because, as she put it, “lo hayu tape recorders b’har Sinai”, but because she understood that serious learning involves all the senses and full concentration. While pedagogically sound, this has deprived hundreds of thousands of people from getting a glimpse of Nehama's teaching.

Whenever Nehama presented some principle or idea she would bring example after example from all over Tanach, refusing to allow us to rely on hearing an idea only once. She would often insist we write down answers to her questions with an empty column for her comments – which might include a tov meod or a lo nachon.

When discussing some idea, she would often ask a question or bring an example from the parsha of the past week. More often than not, either no one or very few would know the answer – we had class on Mondays. She would look at us, dumbfounded, and say (in Hebrew), “Doesn’t anyone pay attention to kriat haTorah?”

One of the things she would often stress is that the Torah mentions only that which is important. It does not tell us whether Avraham or Sarah did the cooking (except when discussing hachnasat orchim) or what clothes people wore. I recall her complaining how an article describing a seminar she gave for visiting teachers from America spent much of the article describing her dress (wearing the latest fashion was not a high priority for her).

Like many of the greatest minds in the Jewish (and non-Jewish) world of the early 20th century she came to Berlin to study, attracted by the intellectual vibrancy and opportunity to learn with some of the greatest intellects in the world.

We asked her if she was friendly with Rav Soloveitchik, who was at University of Berlin at the same time. She told us that they knew each other but had very little interaction. She knew he was coming to study because it was big news that "the son of Rav Moshe Soloveitchik was coming to University of Berlin.” (The Soloveitchik family was not, shall we say, known for their advocacy of university studies.) She did tell us that “my makom kavuah, regular study seat, was over here and his was over there.”

As learned as she was, she was modest to a fault. This first and foremost expressed itself in her most simple lifestyle. She lived in a small apartment lined with books and books and more books. Her entire deportment reflected the best of modesty. After making aliyah in 1930, she left the country only once – to visit her aging parents in Germany (where the family had moved in 1920 and where Nehama received her Ph.D.). She was taken aback at the suggestion that she come teach in America – let them come here, she would respond. And when they offered her thousands of dollars to do so, she seemed offended that one could possibly think she would do so for money. Nehama loved the land (and people and the book) of Israel. She could not understand why we would want to live outside of Israel.

Before Purim we asked her to give us a shiur on the Megillah. She refused, claiming she did not know the megillah well enough (if only I "did not know" the megillah as well!). I recall how one of my classmates argued with an interpretation she had of a Ramban on chumash. She explained why she felt her interpretation was correct. When told that Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, agreed with the student, she said something to the effect of, “compared to Rav Aharon I know nothing, and if he said it then I defer to him.”

Nehama revolutionized and elevated the study of Tanach, influencing and inspiring an entire generation and more of Tanach teachers and students. In recent years, new approaches of Tanach study have proliferated– focusing more on literary analyses and structure and less on the parshanut itself that was the bread and butter of Nehama’s teaching. Yet her influence is enduring and her legacy permanent.

Rav Kook taught that we must love and seek to understand every Jew. Nehama taught that we must love and seek to understand every word in Tanach – not to mention every word in Rashi. There can be no greater message for the first day of school.