When I was a student in a Jewish day school in Baltimore, about a million years ago, we had a sixth grade teacher, whom I’ll call Rabbi P, who required us to memorize verses from Pirkei Avot (when he wasn’t busy hurling sacred books at chatty children.)
I’m a strong believer in the value of memorization. I know it’s old-school, but as someone who still remembers my lines from my 1973 Kindergarten play about neighborhoods, I recognize that there is a window in time when children can absorb enormous amounts of information with ease, and even with some sort of joy, and they will consider this cache, if carefully selected, a gift later in life. I’m still indebted to Morah Miriam, my fifth grade teacher who taught me songs to memorize the names of every Torah portion, every book in Tanach, and every book of the Mishna. (I guess I’ve forgiven her for telling us on Yom Hashoah to “never make friends with the goyim,” though perhaps she wouldn’t have fogiven me for going and marrying one.) And I really am indebted to Rabbi P, especially since he never hit me with a chumash.
I’m not sure how Rabbi P selected which verses he wanted us to commit to memory. There was one passage that seemed an especially strange choice for a group of ten year olds – here’s an excerpt.
???? ???? – ???? ?????: ???? ??? ????? – ????? ??? ??? ??????:
Where did you come from? From a putrid drop. Where you are going–to a place of dust, maggots and worms…..
Perhaps he was trying to instill some humility, or terror, in the students who drove him crazy, day after day. I know it scared me silly. But recently, working in our garden, I thought of that mishnah again. I was turning the compost heap, surely a place of dust and worms. (I don’t think I saw any maggots.)
Then I looked over at my garden, which has been nourished exclusively from the same compost. And I saw this:
And suddenly, that mishnah didn’t seem so terrifying anymore. Thanks, Rabbi P.