Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, June 10, 2022 / 11 Sivan 5782
Summary: Teachers are important figures in our lives who shower us with the blessings of knowledge and growth. Some teachers can even transmit wisdom. I reflect on two of them, one from our own community, and one from another part of my life who set me on a good path.
Reading Time: Five minutes
In this week’s Torah reading, we encounter the birkat kohanim, the priestly benediction. I have a deep love for this blessing. Some of that stems from its antiquity: archaeology brought to life a very ancient amulet upon which were inscribed the words of the blessing, rendered here in English:
May God Bless you and watch over you.
May God make God’s face to shine on you and to be gracious to you.
May God lift up God’s face to you and give you peace.
In addition to its venerable age, I am attracted to the halakhic, or Jewish legal framework, that developed around this blessing. Some people who have traveled to Israel or have grown up in an Orthodox congregation may have experienced dukhenen. This is a ritual in which the kohanim, or priestly heirs, ascend the bimah during the repetition of the Amidah prayer, stand beneath their tallitot, or prayer shawls, and offer the community this blessing.
What is so compelling in the halakhah is a notion that the efficacy of this blessing depends on our receptivity to it. We have to open ourselves to its power by having the kohen in our line of sight and listen intently to the blessing’s words. If we do, the priest becomes a channel for this divine energy to settle upon us. If we do not, the priest says nothing but words. That seems true not only in matters of divine economy. There are so many people in our lives who offer us blessings that depend on our acceptance and attentiveness.
This week, that strikes a particularly poignant chord because I just learned that one of my beloved pottery teachers died after a year-long battle with cancer. I was an active hobby potter for seven years, and my first instructor was Georgia Tenore. After a stint as a production potter, I believe on Cape Cod, she ended up teaching ceramics in Portchester, New York, for twenty years at the Clay Art Center, which is a marvelous non-profit. She normally taught beginning and intermediate students. That means she helped us learn and master the basics, such as centering and kneading, or wedging, clay to remove air bubbles. If that was not done with care, one’s vessel might explode during the kiln firing.
Clay work is somatic; it depends on the body’s union with the material, but when the mind intrudes, there’s a higher likelihood that the vessel will be poorly formed, especially when one is a beginner at the craft. In the 1970s, when studio pottery became popular with many hobbyists, the action of centering the clay became a metaphor for centering oneself. That idea continues to play a role in American culture, especially in the arena of mindfulness, which is a terrible misnomer. Mindfulness actually is “embodiedness”—when we are centered in our bodies, the chatter of the mind fades, and our best selves can surface more readily.
That is what Georgia was really teaching us: how to pay attention to our bodies at the pottery wheel. The better we did this, the more accomplished were the vessels we could make. There’s an old saying attributed to a Japanese master potter, “Show me that pot, and I will tell you the maker.” In essence, a pot records the state of mind—or body—of its maker. It is a snapshot of the birthing process and, more precisely, of its maker. When a vessel showcases a sense of inner harmony, chances are that the potter was deeply absorbed in the work; there is a special sort of peace that accompanies such immersion.
A great teacher must have tremendous reserves of patience because the student can’t always be receptive, can’t always take in the lessons being offered. Maimonides stated that Jewish law requires a teacher to repeat a lesson “even up to a hundred times” until the student understands. We shouldn’t take this to mean that a teacher says the same thing a hundred times, although I have sat in classes with such instructors. Rather, it means that the material must be presented in different ways until every student has a genuine opportunity to accept the blessing of new knowledge. Georgia had those reserves of patience, and an abiding interest in her students fueled her generosity of spirit.
We have a corner of the kitchen where we store our potatoes, onions, and garlic, our tomatoes, bananas, avocados, and mandarins in ceramic vessels. Most of them I made at one point or another. There is one aquamarine casserole, whose lid unfortunately broke during transit to Portland. It broke my heart at the same time, for that pot had both my hands and Georgia’s imprinted in it. It was my first vessel with a flanged lid and proper gallery, which is the indent for the lid. I took it as far as I was able, which means it was a gangly teenager of a pot. At that point, Georgia stood over me and took my hands in hers while I held the rib or shaping tool. Thus she instructed me. The charm of that pot owes everything to her participation.
Georgia watched over me and countless hundreds of students.
She was gracious to each of us, shining her concern upon us.
May she now know peace.
We are also saying goodbye to Morah Vicki Rotstein, though thankfully she is simply retiring after more than thirty years of dedicated teaching in Aliyah. Vicki taught our sixth-grade students the prayers they would need when they became b’nai mitzvah. Like Georgia, her patience and gentle pedagogy are legendary. My kids were older when we moved here, so only Amitai had the opportunity to learn from her.
I also knew Vicki from another facet of life. Pre-pandemic, when we were bringing “Soup to the Streets” on Monday nights, she and her husband, Alan, were regulars at my house, making sandwiches and guiding first-time helpers. Once the food was ready, they were our East Side stalwarts, going from tent to tent and from cardboard box to cardboard box in the dark chill of winter. They have been involved with aiding our homeless neighbors for many years. They did this quietly, never drawing attention to themselves. It was simply an act of gemilut chasidim, of decency and love for Portland’s most vulnerable. It is hard to imagine our school hallway without her presence, but her impact won’t readily disappear. The generation of students she taught are proud and capable Jews who have gone, or will go on, to contribute to the world.
If you would like to attend her retirement celebration this Sunday, click on this link to RSVP.
As another school year ends, let me offer thanks to all our teachers here at the synagogue and in the wider world. Like the priests of old, they are a conduit of blessing.
Shabbat Table Talk
- Who are your top three teachers of all time? Why do they remain so memorable to you?
- In what ways are teachers like parents? How did your parent/s teach you?
- Who have you mentored? What did you gain from the role?
Links for Sensible Gun Control: IP-17 and IP-18.
Link for my sermon after Uvalde, Texas.
If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.