Jewish Wisdom for Teachers

And Everyone Fighting for a Better World

I am very tired. I am "the honeymoon period is long past over, and I'm counting the days to winter break" tired. I am "it's day 12 of a persistent cold" tired. I am tired from the work of teaching. I am tired from the weight of current events.

As a teacher serving kids of color in a systemically and historically marginalized community, I don't feel good about being tired. As a whiter person trying to fight against systems of oppression I feel embarrassed to say I'm tired. Do I get to be tired? If I'm tired, what about the kids and families I serve? What about the friends and loved ones who experience racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia...

This humility and empathy is essential. And so is an understanding that emotional and/or physical fatigue are not moral failures. I am allowed to be tired. I am allowing myself to be tired, and forgiving with myself, because my Jewish tradition teaches me to do this.

Rabbi Hillel, one of Judaism's greatest teachers, said, "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am for myself only, then what am I? And if not now, when?"

I have been taught that these ideas support one another. In other words, if I want to participate in the long term fight for justice, and if I want to fight with a sense of passion and urgency, I must also care for myself.

This lesson is important for teachers and activists. Teachers as caregivers have a hard time with taking care of ourselves. I think this is especially difficult for those of us serving kids affected by racism and poverty. To take a night off from work, to leave school at 4 pm instead of 6 pm, to ignore the e-mails from colleagues and supervisors... can feel like a betrayal of my commitment to give my students' the best possible education.

And yet, what will happen if I don't give myself permission to pause, to breathe, to rest, and recover? How can we do our best work as teachers and/or activists if we don't take a moment to care for ourselves.

It's also important to not only frame self-care as a means to better serving others. This is compelling and true. But self-care is a valuable and valid because I am a human being and I have inherent value even when I'm not caring for others.

I know this to be true, but I am slow to learn this and practice it. When I struggle to be kind to myself, and to give myself permission to rest, I often think of another Jewish teaching. This one is from Rabbi Tarfon. "It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it."

I cannot repair the world in one day. I cannot repair it by myself. I cannot give up on the work of repairing the world, but I can take a moment to rest when I need to.


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