The end of the year comes with many types of evaluations. We have tests, exams, essays, and papers, all of which we use to look at how much our students have learned during the present school year. The school at which I have worked for the past 11 years has three levels of awards for our students. One is for academic achievement, one for most improvement, and the last for effort. Yes, not for the best marks but for best effort. How often do we overlook the student who has not necessarily made the most strides in terms of his grades, but who has put in consistent effort (sometimes blood, sweat and tears!) and grown in terms of either maturity or managing his or her own emotions? Are we really looking at the whole child when we think about the progress of child? Sometimes as parents even we need to be reminded that no two siblings are alike; that growth comes either at a slower pace from one child to the next, or in areas other than school. When the award for effort is handed out, the applause is always the same if not louder.
The idea of rewarding people for their efforts can be found in this week’s parsha Behukotai. The Parsha begins with the verse, “If you follow my statutes and you observe my commands and perform them…”
Rashi, the famous commentary on the Torah, explains the phrase, “If you follow my statutes” to mean, “If you toil in Torah” (“She’tiheyu Amelim Ba’Torah”). According to Rashi, the Torah here refers not only to observing the mitzvot but to Torah learning. Rashi’s use of the word “toil” is very purposeful. Rashi does not speak simply of “learning” Torah, but rather of “toiling” in Torah – “Amelut.” What does it mean “to toil” in the study of Torah? What is Rashi’s insight into the idea of effort?
The word “toil” means to exert effort, sweat, and/or “break our heads” to understand the words of Torah to the best of our ability. Rashi’s use of this specific word is to emphasize the unique importance of not just studying, but of putting in time, work and effort. When we take on the responsibility of learning Torah, we need to know that it is both a commitment in terms of time, but also that we are rewarded for the effort. The answers may not always be correct, but the reward for the effort is tremendous and must be recognized. I think about the word “toil” also as we are coming close to the end of the school year. We must remember that the goal in education is, ultimately, the “Amelut,” not the grade. Of course, we want all our children to succeed and to know and understand the material. But this goal is secondary to the goals of producing young men and women who put in AND value the efforts of hard work.
Lag BaOmer is the holiday celebrating the thirty third day of the Omer, the period of 49 days which we count daily from the second day of Passover to the holiday of Shavuot. This is a time in which we observe customs of mourning such as refraining from listening to live music, cutting hair, and celebrating weddings. Historically, this was the time preceding the Bar Kochva revolt where Rabbi Akiva’s students were suffering from a terrible plague, resulting in the death of 24,000 Torah students. Lag BaOmer is the day that the plague ended.
The Talmud in the tractate of Yevamot 62b, explains that the reason why Rabbi Akiva’s students were punished was because they did not conduct themselves with respect towards one another. In other words, they were learning Torah from a great scholar, but they failed to show respect to one another in terms of accepting someone else’s opinion, or perhaps in the ways in which they interacted with one another outside the walls of the Beit Midrash (study hall). In essence, they succeeded in their time and effort but they did not truly internalize the messages of the Torah. They may have learned the laws of the Torah, but they did not integrate the virtues of Judaism into their character development. When Rashi uses the word “amelut”, it is because he wants us to know that Torah Study is not just in terms of the number of hours that we spend, but it is also something that we “break our heads” for in order to integrate the ideas into our heart. Torah is not something that we just learn by rote, but a guide for the ways in which we are supposed to live our lives. A Jew cannot simply follow the “letter of the law”, but has to take the teachings of the Torah and create a better world both on an individual and a communal level.
There are many goals that we set forth in terms of educating our children. We need to reward our students for success and for effort. The “toiling” is not only about knowledge, but to also provide the skills for our children to be kind, tolerant and respectful toward all others. This was the lesson of the great tragedy of Rabbi Akiva’s students and one which we must continue to emphasize and reward throughout the year. We should all be striving for the “A” in effort.