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Parashat 07/13/2011

Parashat Pinchas

Submitted by Robert Rabinoff


HaShem said to Moshe: Take to yourself Yehoshua, a man in whom there is spirit, and lean your hand on him (27:18)

Rashi: Yehoshua is worthy to receive the reward of his service (shimusho) for he didn’t depart from within the Tent. (to 27:16)

Rashi distinguishes Yehoshua from all Moshe Rabbeinu’s other students using the term service (shimusho, the same root from which we get shammes, the “servant” candle in the Chunukah menorah; the same term is used for the caretaker of a synagogue).  When we think of the leaders of the Jewish people, we generally think in terms of scholars of Torah and the Rabbinic literature, people who are distinguished for their learning.  Now Yehoshua was certainly a learned scholar, having learned directly from Moshe Rabbeinu for the better part of his life.  Gd Himself commanded his selection, even when Moshe harbored hopes that his own sons might succeed him.  And the leader of the people had to be extremely well-versed in the Law, for he was the ultimate judge of the people.  Yet apparently it was his service that put him head and shoulders above his colleagues.


What service did Yehoshua render, and to whom?  Our tradition gives several answers.  First and foremost, he was Moshe’s servant.  He did what was needed for Moshe to carry out his functions as teacher and lawgiver.  It is reported that Yehoshua never “left the tent” where he learned from and served Moshe.  In fact, the Tradition tells us that he married Rachav, the resident of Yericho who harbored the spies that Yehoshua sent to reconnoiter the town – this of course was after Moshe’s death.  The implication is that he sacrificed his “social life” to serve.


In addition, the Midrash tells us that Yehoshua would spread the mats for people to sit on when they came to hear Moshe, and would help with the teaching, reviewing the lessons just learned, and then he would clean up the tent afterwards.  Those of us who have been in graduate school can relate very well to this kind of service!  And although graduate students typically moan about doing these kinds of things, they are actually an important part of their education, as I will attempt to explain.


Virtually all cultures have some form of teacher-disciple relationship.  It has become quite attenuated in Western culture, where, unfortunately, the accumulated wisdom of the culture has gotten distorted, and therefore is looked upon as being of little value.  If something is lightly regarded, we don’t pay much attention to whether or how it gets transmitted.  I think this is part of the reason why teachers currently have such low status in the US; in the early parts of the last century, and even through my school days, this was not the case – a teaching job was quite coveted.


In the cases with which I am familiar, a major part of the mechanism by which knowledge is transmitted from mentor to student is through the student’s service.  Several examples: The Indian sage Shankara (c. 500 BCE) had four disciples.  His chief disciple (Trotakacharya) was the one who served him with the most simple, straightforward devotion – that devotion allowed him to make the fastest spiritual progress.  In the field of martial arts, when I studied karate all the students would clean the dojo before and after training.  This was part of the training; in inculcated a sense of submission to the sensei as well as giving us a sense of ownership of the dojo.  In our own tradition, a Chasid was once asked what Torah he had learned in a visit to his rebbe.  He replied, “I don’t visit the rebbe to listen to lectures.  I visit to see how he ties his shoelaces!”


Then there are our graduate students (and post-docs, interns, and apprentices).  All these students are learning more by doing, rather than (as much) by studying.  If you visit an art museum you may at times see an art student sitting in front of a classic work, simply copying it.  What is happening here?  The student is learning to see the way the master saw things, and to transfer that vision to canvas.  Is this vision true to the student, who may be living thousands of miles and several centuries distant from the master’s world?  Probably not, but what the master accomplished must be available to the student as part of his/her repertoire; once it is second nature the student will take from it that which complements his/her own unique consciousness and integrate it into his/her own style.


The basic principle behind shimush / service to the (spiritual) master is this: by attuning our actions to the wishes of the master, the student gradually attunes his mind to the mind of the master.  And since the master’s mind is, by definition, attuned to Gd and to Gd’s Will, the student is gradually attuning his mind with Gd’s Mind – which is the ultimate goal of spiritual development.  This is something that cannot be gained from books (or the internet <g>) – it is something that must be passed from one living mind and heart to another.


In some cases the pupil rises to the same level as the master.  In some cases the student may even surpass his teacher (R. Akiva, who studied with R. Eliezer and R. Tarfon, comes to mind – R. Tarfon is quoted in many cases in the Talmud as being bested in argument by his student/colleague, and beaming with pleasure at the experience).  In some cases however, the teacher is so exalted that the student cannot reach that level.  Thus we learn that “Moshe’ face was like the sun, Yehoshua’s face was like the moon [which has no light of its own, but rather reflects the light of the sun].”  Yet ultimately Yehoshua was a great prophet and a great leader in his own right; if he didn’t reach the level of Moshe Rabbeinu, well, nobody else has either, nor, Torah attests, will anyone.


The master/student relationship is the basis of the transmission of knowledge, and therefore the basis of all traditional culture.  It is a shame that our society has not really cultured this relationship; whether this is a cause or a symptom of many of our social woes I cannot say.  It should however give us a sense of urgency in seeking knowledge and spiritual guidance wherever we best can find it.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 6

Mishnah 6

Greater is Torah than the priesthood and kingship, for kingship is achieved through thirty advantages and the priesthood through twenty-four, but the Torah is acquired through forty-eight qualifications: … (9) through service to the Sages (shimush chachamim)

Torah is pure knowledge.  We can certainly acquire Torah through (academic) study, up to a point.  We can learn the way of deriving halachot from the words of Torah, and we can learn the halachot that were taught to Moshe orally at Mt. Sinai and passed down through the ages orally until they were redacted into the Mishnah almost two millennia ago.  What we cannot learn from books is how to embody Torah in our every breath.  That can only be passed on by example, and that example has to be from one who already embodies Torah.  Thus the very first Mishnah in Pirke Avot tells us that Torah was received by Moshe Rabbeinu directly from Gd, and he passed it on to Yehoshua, etc.  Now, in one of the last sayings of Pirke Avot, we are told that ultimately this is the only way for the essence of Torah to become a living reality for each one of us individually, and for the people of Israel as a whole.