Teachers play a special role in our lives. We often hear awardees, from Oscar recipients to Hall of Fame inductees to Nobel Prize winners, thank teachers who helped direct and shape not only their careers but their lives. As we mature we can look back and say, “Yes, it was my 2nd grade teacher who gave me confidence”, or “It was coach so and so who inspired me to be a leader.” We are truly fortunate to have such mentors in our lives.
In this week’s Torah reading, parshat במדבר (be-midbar), we come across a verse that on its surface is factually impossible. Chapter 3 begins, “These are the offspring of Aaron and Moshe on the day Hashem spoke with Moshe at Mount Sinai.” Our Torah scholars are quick to note that the succeeding verses only mention the sons of Aaron. The Talmud Sanhedrin 19b wonders why only the names of the sons of Aaron are listed, yet the Torah calls them the offspring of both Aaron and Moshe? “In what way,” asks Rashi, “are these children the ‘offspring of Moshe?’”
In what way were the biological sons of Aaron considered the “offspring” of Moshe? Rashi explains that this verse establishes the principle that if one teaches Torah to his fellow man, Scripture accounts it to him as though he had begotten him. From the phrase, “…on the day that Hashem spoke to Moshe…” we learn that on ‘that day’ they became Moshe’s children. He taught them immediately, right then, what he had just learned from Hashem.
The teacher student relationship is special and unique. In Judaism this relationship is given legal recognition separate and apart from the obligation, to respect every human being and distinct also from the laws governing honor shown to our parents. First, we must show every human being respect and treat every person with dignity. Every person is created “in the image of God” and reflects that idea. Second, our parents deserve an additional level of honor and regard. Without them, we would not have existence. Thirdly, our teachers are in a separate category of honor and respect; they give us life in the world that is eternal.
Anyone who goes into the profession of teaching is working with an unstated yet underlying assumption. What he or she knows is valuable for other people to know be it a skill or a particular piece of knowledge. Someone dedicated to teaching feels the responsibility to share this knowledge with others. To withhold this knowledge would be to deny life itself. Teaching values, ethical behavior and abstract concepts of how reality works not only affords the learner a better physical life, these teachings invigorate, energize, and sustain the soul of man. It is that unique part of our human makeup that exists after the physical ceases to exist.
Moshe could not wait one moment after hearing an idea by God from giving it over, teaching it to others. Just as his life was improved here in this world and his soul eternally changed by what God taught him, Moshe wanted to immediately instruct and communicate the knowledge to his fellow man. We are told in the Talmud that any person who wanted, was permitted into Moshe’s study hall for that day’s learning. No man or woman was ever excluded.
Just like any good parent works tirelessly and relentlessly on behalf of their child, so too does every good teacher invest and expend countless hours of their energy to teach and instruct their students. There is no doubt that the teaching process consumes the teacher such that the teacher feels a tie and commitment to his or her students. There is every bit of satisfaction in a job well done, when a smile of understanding and appreciation envelops the face of the student. The pride and happiness the teacher feels at that moment is no less than the pride and happiness parents feel for their children when they succeed. In some very rare occasions, a special bond is created between a teacher and a student that supersedes all other relationships. At this level, the relationship has the same feel and displays the same characteristics parents have for their own flesh and blood.
As our school year winds down (only one more week but who is counting), it is helpful that we pause and reflect. Where in terms of our knowledge did we start the year and where are we now in terms of our knowledge nine months later? Isn’t it interesting that the nine month school year (factoring in the days of vacation) equals the time for bearing a child?
Rabbi Robert Kaplan