Have you ever had a teacher or coach that made a difference in your life? Can you think back to something they said or did that you have repeated or emulated?
Maybe you are a coach or teacher and can think of times when a student thanks you for the impact you’ve had or the encouragement you gave.
Passing on knowledge is a process. It can be both beneficial and detrimental. It is ultimately a matter of truth and experience, or worse, life or death. Enter the golem.
The Hebrew word ‘golem’ appears only once in the Bible in Psalms139:16, where it means “shapeless or unfinished mass.” The Talmud, a sacred Jewish text, uses the words “imperfect” and “unformed” to describe the golem. In some of the stories, the golem is created to serve its master. In others, the creation is symbolic only, similar to a spiritual awakening after a religious experience.
In Talmudic legend, when God created Adam out of clay, he was a golem, a “body without a soul.” God gave him life by breathing into him. In Hebrew, the word for breath can also mean spirit and soul.
According to the literature about golems, there are several ways to create one and enchant them with life. Once the shape of the creature is formed, often out of clay, one story suggests dancing around the body, invoking the alphabet and the secret name of God. To undo this magic, the creator would simply walk in the reverse direction around the being while reciting the same sayings.
Another tradition that I particularly find beautiful is where the golem is given life through the writing of a word: truth. Once the golem was formed, the creator would write the word emet, Hebrew meaning “truth,” on the golem’s forehead. The imprinting of truth on the “imperfect mass” would give it life and, in a way, perfection.
To reverse the spell and kill the creature, the maker would erase the first letter of emet leaving met, meaning “death.” The question we might ask is, why would we need to destroy something we brought to life?
In some of the stories surrounding golems, the creatures do not always manifest in a good way. Much like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, who went about terrorizing the locals after being created, the golem supposedly went mad and ran amok in a few of the accounts. I bring up Frankenstein, which may have been adapted from the golem history, to illustrate that humankind has been attempting to create life, whether through science (Frankenstein) or religious divination, for much of our existence.
From a purely linguistic and symbolic perspective, I find the story of the golem fascinating. I see a similarity between creating the golem and what coaches or teachers do for their students.
While teachers do not physically shape their students from clay, we do give them form, often in our image. Depending on the context, a student may spend as much time with a teacher as with anyone else. We have an obligation in how we approach our practice because our students reflect our teachings to the world.
As teachers and coaches, we also have the opportunity to sow truth and life into our students. We help inscribe emet on their minds while simultaneously breathing life into their dreams, their passions, and their growth.
With great power comes great responsibility. Just as the golem went astray in several accounts, so too can our students. I can’t help but remember Seneca’s famed student, Nero. Even with all of Seneca’s teaching, Nero went mad and forced Seneca to commit suicide.
We must also remember that bad fruit may be a result of a rotten tree as well. Remember Cobra Kai? As a teacher, we have to take precautions that our lessons are making better humans instead of just better learners or better fighters in the case of martial arts.
We cannot ensure that our students don’t stray from a path of truth, but we can do our best to teach them how to make proper judgments. We can also encourage our students to treat others with respect and dignity. Regardless of the students’ introduction to the world, educating them is a humanistic effort. Speak truth, breathe life.
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