Student from Hell; Student from Heaven

So perhaps this is the test of holiness: How do I find the love and compassion for someone who is difficult for me?

Student from Hell 311 (do not publish again) (photo credit: AVI KATZ)
Student from Hell 311 (do not publish again)
(photo credit: AVI KATZ)
I ONCE HAD A STUDENT FROM HELL. EVERY TIME SHE saw me in the hallway she would run up and ask me a question. A difficult eclectic question that I had no idea how to answer. Before I could even begin to respond, she would then rattle off another question. While I was balancing these two questions she would then ask, “Is it OK if I ask you another question?” In 30 seconds I was exhausted, blitzed by questions, clueless how to respond.
I began to avoid her in the halls. Peeking out from the classroom to see if the coast was clear, I felt like a coward and an educational failure, but, on the other hand, I just didn’t have the emotional resources to handle the onslaught of questions. I felt drained and weary.
This week’s portion charges us to be kedoshim (holy). If there were a “kadosh-meter” that could measure my behavior – how would I have rated with this student? Pass? Fail? How would the kadosh-meter have measured me?
In other words, how can we measure kedusha (holiness)?
Paradoxically, though we are commanded to become like God – “be Holy as I am Holy” (Leviticus 19:1) – we are not measured according to our relationship with God. Our test is not to have a relationship with God, but to live in the Image of God.
Notwithstanding theological challenges, having a relationship with God and the commandments bein adam lamakom (between humans and God) are easy. Talking to God can be a lot easier than talking to my neighbor. Dealing with an angry and judgmental God can be much easier than dealing with an angry and judgmental neighbor.
Indeed, Rabbi Akiva, one of the earliest founders of rabbinical Judaism who lived in the latter part of the 1st century and the early years of the 2nd century, asserted that the real test of holiness is to be found a few verses later in the weekly reading: “Do not take revenge and do not hold a grudge against one of your people, love your fellow being as yourself, I am God” (19:18). And in our own time, revered scholar and teacher Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz was once asked by his students, “How can we measure if we are growing spiritually?” He replied, “Just ask your wives if you are becoming a better husband.”
“Love your neighbor as yourself.” I do not need this command for my friends and family. I already love them. I only need this verse for the people that I do not love, where I would naturally want to either take revenge or at least hold a grudge. So perhaps this is the test of holiness: How do I find the love and compassion for someone who is difficult for me?
Or in my case – for the student from Hell.
My first strategy with this student was to follow the advice of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th-century German scholar: “Behave as if you love them.” Though dreading the encounter and praying in my heart that she wouldn’t find me, when she did locate me and sling the inevitable fury of questions, I pasted a smile on my face and behaved as if I cared about her. I made an effort to listen and show attention, while secretly counting the seconds and planning my escape. Though feeling quite hypocritical, I felt that it was an improvement from hiding in the teacher’s lounge.
A few weeks later I tried follow the wisdom of the medieval commentator, the Rambam (Maimonides): “Love is a measure of knowledge.” Maybe I just didn’t know her well enough, didn’t know her story. We made a date for coffee and I listened to her life history. She had just made aliya from the former Soviet Union and her family was upset with her because she was becoming more Jewishly involved. She was culturally out of sorts in our Anglo enclave and entirely alone, without family and community. The more I learned about her, the more frustrated I felt with myself and my previous actions. I had responded to her in the moment of the encounter, ignoring her whole being. I found I had much more patience with her.
It took me a long time to realize, though, that my relationship with this student was not at all by chance. After months of lamenting these demanding and draining interactions, I finally “got it.”
The Hasidic masters write that nothing is by chance. I needed to experience this student. She had been sent to me. This student was not a student from Hell, but the student from Heaven. In fact, this student was not my student at all, but rather she was my teacher. I needed to learn something that only she could teach me.
Rabbi Abraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook writes (“Orot HaKodesh” IV:389) that the primary purpose of learning Torah and fulfilling commandments is to clear away the obstacles preventing us from being loving human beings. The Talmud scholar should be the most loving person in the community. It’s not about the amount of knowledge that the scholar has – it’s about the effect of the knowledge. The knowledge should enable someone to become a vessel of Godliness, a compassionate and loving human being.
My student from Hell had an important assignment: she had to teach me that, though I might have thought I was a decent and caring human being, apparently my heart was not big enough to include her. Apparently my loving muscles needed to be stretched, to find space to care about her also.
“You shall be holy” – the “kadosh-meter” – means finding the inner resources to include someone who has been left out. It means finding the love for someone who may be difficult to love.
Aryeh Ben David is Director of Ayeka: Adult Education for the Soul (