There is a concept in Education known as the teachable moment. This is when the student experiences something extraordinary in an ordinary moment. In this moment realisation occurs and learning sticks. There is an opportunity for someone to point this out or for the student to find it out for themselves. In our parashah young Joseph experiences many such teachable moments but he does not always realise what the lesson is to be learned. He seems not to notice the jealousy of his brothers in receiving the favouritism of his father and shares his dreams of personal ambition with the whole family. Jacob takes note of the moment – shamar et hadavar (37:11) but Joseph is oblivious.
In searching for his brothers in Shechem he comes across a man who notices him wandering and lost. Rashi would like this ‘man’ to be the angel Gabriel guiding him to his fate and to the ultimate enslavement and redemption of the Israelites from Egypt but as a literary moment in the text what does it offer? It should allow Joseph to pause – toeh basadeh (37:15) but he ignores the signs and loses his independence because of it.
The third such moment occurs with Potiphar’s wife when – va’ya-azov bigdo b’yadah (39:12) he leaves his garment in her hand. He has gone so far but cannot go any further when the moment catches up with him and he is fallen again. It is only now deep in the dungeon that experiences come thick and fast to turn his fate around and he understands them well. Interpreting the dreams of the butler and baker, interpreting Pharoah’s dreams, testing the brothers using Benjamin as bait – all these show he is now learning from the teachable moments of his life.
This ability to ‘mark the moment’, reflect through wandering and ultimately take decisive action is key to personal awareness of experience in life. Reform and Liberal Jews will gather in their thousands in Washington DC this weekend for the biennial convention of the American Union for Reform Judaism. For many, especially those going for the first time, it will be a teachable moment as 5000 Jews study, pray and deliberate on the tasks of Progressive Judaism for the 21st century. The convention’s focus on youth engagement emphasises the importance of empowering Jewish young people to be catalysts for change in our world through environmental ethics, responsible fiscal management, the pursuit of justice and peace and many other issues heralded by Reform and Liberal Judaism. President Barak Obama’s presence at the convention will mark this gathering as significant not just for Jews but for Jewish contributions to America and to democratic values in Europe and in Israel. As you can imagine this experience will provide many teachable moments in order that we will come away motivated and inspired as worldwide Progressive Jews.
As we approach Chanukah, our festival of enlightenment and deliverance, we should continue to keep Joseph’s teachable moments in mind. What is the experience of many around us who are downtrodden, deceived or exploited? Only when we take note, reflect deeply on our task as individuals and as a community and act for the common good, will we bring about the miracle of enlightenment. This is our teachable moment but can we see it? Through the teachings of our tradition, the strength of our worldwide Movement and its commitment to tikkun olam as a fundamental principle and through our own spiritual searching will come redemption for all.
Rabbi Dr Michael Shire is Dean and Professor of Jewish Education at the Shoolman Graduate School at Hebrew College Boston
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.