Skip to content

Parashat 05/25/2011

Parashat Bamidbar

by Robert Rabinoff


These are the generations of Aharon and Moshe… (3:1)

Rashi: This tells you that anyone who teaches Torah to the son of his colleague, Scripture accounts it to him as if he had given birth to him.

R. Elazar ben Shamua says: … Let the reverence for your teacher be as your reverence for Gd (Pirke Avot 4:14)

For any tradition to survive it must be transmitted from one generation to the next, from teacher to student, parent to child, knower to seeker of knowledge.  In our tradition the ultimate source of knowledge is Gd, who revealed His Torah to the entire nation at Mt. Sinai.  But the details – the all-important detailed understanding of what exactly Gd expects of us – was given to Moshe Rabbeinu, mostly orally, and he was instructed to begin the chain of transmission to all subsequent generations.  The outlines of this chain are in the first Mishnah of Pirke Avot:  Moshe received the Torah at Sinai and passed it on to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly.  From there it has been passed down from teacher to student to the present day.


Anyone who has ever had a special teacher knows the impact such a person can have on one’s life.  Perhaps you chose your career because she inspired you.  Perhaps you gained one insight that was able to provide you a perspective that you badly needed at a critical time in your life.  I think the high point of my teaching career was when a student came up to me at the end of the course and told me that he now saw the world completely differently than he ever had.  This was not a testimony to my abilities, but rather to the power of the knowledge that I had gained from my teacher and that I had attempted to pass on to my classes.


Parents are, in general, our greatest teachers.  This is as it should be, as we say daily in the Sh’ma: And you shall teach [these words] to your children.  If a parent can teach the children academic knowledge that is wonderful, but parents are constantly teaching their children in any event.  How many times have you startled yourself by noticing that you are doing something exactly the way your father or mother used to do it?  How often have you listened to yourself voice an opinion or adopt an attitude that is identical to that of your parents.  Even when we rebel, it is most likely against what we have learned from our parents; our memories formed in our early years are a powerful backdrop, for better or otherwise, to much of our adult thinking and behavior.  This should give us something to ponder as we go about the business of parenting our own children.


Our obligations to both teachers and parents are similar – we owe both honor, reverence and awe.  Yet in our tradition, the honor, reverence and awe that we owe our Torah teacher is actually greater than that owed our parents – and the awe of our parents is mandated in the Ten Commandments!  Why should this be?  Our Sages answer simply: our parents give us physical life, the life of this world.  Our Torah teacher gives us eternal life in the World to Come.  There is no question that the material, mortal life of the body is subordinate to the life of the spirit.  Thus, as Rashi states, one who teaches another Torah, initiating him into the world of spiritual development and guiding his growth until he reaches his full spiritual stature, is considered to be that person’s true parent.  Our Sages teach us that there are three partners in the creation of a human being – the mother and the father provide the physical body, and Gd provides the Divine spark, which is our soul.  Perhaps we should add a fourth partner – the teacher, who cultures that Divine spark until it is a roaring flame of passionate love for Gd and for humanity.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 5

Mishnah 10

Seven qualities characterize the boor and seven the wise person: … 5) the wise person addresses first things first and last things last.

When you ask a Rabbi a series of questions, he will generally quote this Mishnah and proceed to ask your questions in the order you asked them.  This is actually a great compliment, for he is assuming you have thought through the problem to the best of your ability and are presenting your questions in a logical order, one that will fill in the gaps in your knowledge and will correct your thinking where it needs correcting.  In another sense, it means that a wise person takes care of the more important things first – and what are they?  The most important thing we have to address is our immortal soul.  We must make our spiritual development our #1 priority in life.  If we do, all the other issues we have will fall into line.  If we don’t, we may have fleeting success in some areas of life, but it will all turn into dust and ashes in our mouth at the end.  We have this idea that we have to “take care of #1.”  It’s often used as an excuse for all kinds of selfish, irresponsible and immature behavior.  What it really means is that we should be taking care of our relationship to the #1 of the Universe.  Then He will take care of us!