Even One Letter!

Two Women Teaching a Child to Walk, Rembrandt, Date: c.1635 – c.1637.

I once worked with a man who had lost his only child, a boy. Sometimes, as children often did in the 1950s and 60s, the boy rode his bicycle to school. One day, on his way home, a car hit him. He was severely injured and taken to the hospital. A week later, he died. He was nine years old.


When I met the man in the 1980s, I was about the age his son would have been if he had lived. I liked him a lot. He was soft-spoken and deeply religious. I asked to learn with him; he agreed. He invited me to stay with him and his wife one weekend. While I was there, the wife showed me their son’s room. She had changed nothing in it from the day her son had passed away many years earlier. Grief sat mightily on the couple’s hearts.

During one of our study sessions, I asked my friend a question, and I marvel now that I did it. “Looking back,” I said, “is there anything you wish you had done differently with your son?” He said there was; he wished he had not been so hard on the boy about religion. This was told to me by the kindest, gentlest man I have ever known.

Twice a day, in the morning prayer and again in the evening prayer, I recite a passage from Deuteronomy. The portion is called the “Shema,” after its first word, which means “Hear.” Part of it addresses the religious instruction of our children.

And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be upon thy heart; and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.

Deuteronomy 6:6-9 (JPS, 1917)

In Proverbs 22.6, we learn that we should “train up a child in the way he should go,…” Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (1889-1943) was the Grand Rabbi of Piaseczno, Poland. Rabbi Shapira’s only son died in the Nazi bombing of Warsaw in September, 1939. Rabbi Shapira perished in Treblinka four years later, in November, 1943. In his book, A Student’s Obligation, (Jason Aronson, Inc. 1991, trans. by Micha Odenheimer), Rabbi Shapira explains the meaning of Proverbs 22.6.

An educator…who wishes to uncover the soul of the child that lies hidden and concealed within him…must adapt himself attentively to the student, must penetrate into the midst of his limited consciousness and small-mindedness until he reaches the hidden soul-spark. Then he can help it emerge, blossom, and grow.

Shapira, A Student’s Obligation, p. 5

Teachers must adapt their teaching to fit a child’s learning style and needs, personality, and temperament.

Of course, we are not only teachers, we are also students. In Chapter 1 of Pirkei Avot (Chapters of the Fathers), Joshua ben Perahiah says, “appoint for thyself a teacher.” Later, in Chapter 6, there is a beautiful story about King David’s honoring a man from whom he had learned only two things.

“If David, king of Israel who learned from Ahitophel no more than two things, nevertheless called him his master, his guide and his beloved friend; then in the case of one who learns from his fellow one chapter, or one halakhah, or one verse, or one word, or even one letter, all the more so he is under obligation to treat him with honor.”

Pirkei Avot 6.3, Sefaria

“Even one letter!”

In most cases, parents are the first teachers of their children. Four times a year, Jewish custom reminds the children of those whose parents are no longer living to remember their parents as teachers when reciting Yizkor – the prayer for the souls of the departed. For one whose father has died, the prayer begins, “May God remember the soul of my father, my teacher…” For a deceased mother, one says, “May God remember the soul of my mother, my teacher…”

My wife just became a grandparent for the first time. That blessed event set me to thinking about learning and the legacy of teachers. I remember reading once, and I no longer remember where I read it, that there comes a time in a child’s education when their school teacher’s opinion counts for more than that of their parents. From my experience, I know that the time also comes when their peers’ views are valued more than that of either their parents or school teachers.


In college, I studied piano with Mr. William Avera, of blessed memory. I had started lessons with him when I was a middle teenager. Before him, my teacher had been my father. Later, I continued learning with Mr. Avera as a music major at Belhaven College, now University, in Jackson, Mississippi, where he served as an Assistant Professor of Piano.

When I was his private student, before college, I remember once my family’s falling behind on payments for my lessons. Mr. Avera never complained to me about it. But then one day, at the end of a session, he told me he had a proposition to discuss. Would I be willing, and he said I would be doing him a great favor, to do some yard work for him? He had a large yard with many pine trees, so mostly the work involved picking up pine cones and raking pine needles. I agreed; he continued to teach me.

I was a diligent but mediocre pianist. My teacher knew that and adapted his teaching to my deficiencies. I could play popular music reasonably well, but I struggled with classical music. During a lesson once, I was playing a piece by Chopin. I was wrestling with it but losing the battle. Mr. Avera stopped me. “Do you know how to play ‘Danny Boy’?” he asked. I said I did; he told me to play it for him. I was puzzled by his request but did as he requested. When I finished, he leaned forward in his chair and said, “Now, that’s how I want you to play the Chopin.”

I am grateful to my teacher. Once, out of curiosity, I worked through his music pedigree. At Southern Methodist University, he was a graduate student of the Hungarian pianist György Sándor. Sándor, in turn, had learned under the well-known composer and pianist Béla Bartók at the Liszt Academy in Budapest. As a young man, Bartók studied for four years with István Thomán, a Hungarian piano virtuoso and former student of Franz Liszt, arguably the most celebrated pianist of all time. Liszt studied piano with Carl Czerny, who, as a boy, had studied with Beethoven. It is an impressive musical legacy by any standard!

Sometimes I like to imagine the ten-year-old Czerny struggling with a Beethoven piece at one of his lessons. Beethoven stops him in the middle of his playing and asks him, “Do you know how to play the prelude to Paus’ Suite for Harpsichord in F major?” When the puzzled Czerny replies that he does, Beethoven asks him to please play it for him. When Czerny finishes, Beethoven leans forward in his chair and says to him, “Excellent! Now that’s how I want you to play my piece.”

All the best,
Gershon

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham holds an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics). His writing has appeared in Big Muddy, Gravel, Image, Jewish Literary Journal, Poetica, The Rappahannock Review, Tipton Poetry Journal, and others. His short story “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) earned “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition.

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