Sometimes a single random event seems to influence the rest of our lives.
When I started at my (Jewish) high school in London, our class of about 60 students was divided into an A, B and C group for Ivrit, or Modern Hebrew. On what basis were the students divided? Very simple. All of us were seated in a big hall, two teachers came in, and said things like: “Epstein, yes, his father teaches Hebrew in one of our schools, he goes in the A group. Schechter, never heard of him, C group.” I had learned to read Hebrew before English, when I was in the kindergarten. In our elementary school, we studied, not just Chumash and Talmud, but also modern hebrew which we wrote and spoke. So I felt rather annoyed at being placed in the C group in high school.
My mother told me to speak to the teacher, which I did, one day after class. I told him of my background, but he waved me away and walked off quickly.
A few days later in class we came across a new word in our Hebrew textbook. The teacher launched into a little speech, dripping with sarcasm. “Boys, I have something to tell you. Listen carefully. You have among you in this class a boy who thinks he knows it all. He told me this a few days ago. He said: ‘I have done all this before. I know it all.’ And this boy, of course, is our friend Schechter.” I tried to say: “I didn’t say I know it all” but he cut me off. “No, no. That is what you said. Well, if you do know it all, then you certainly know the meaning of this new word. Why don’t you tell us?” he sneered at me.
I was in a quandary. I thought I knew the word, but wasn’t sure. If I said nothing and just kept my mouth shut, I would be totally humiliated. But if I gave the wrong translation, I would be equally humiliated. I spoke up. “I think it means …..” I said. I immediately knew I was right. The teacher looked up at me in shock and started scribbling furiously in his notebook. Overnight I was transformed. He soon announced I was the best student in the class and shortly thereafter promoted me to the A group. Many years later he told my nephew who had joined the school that I was his best student.
What was that word? אִלֵם. What is the English translation? Mute or dumb.