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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Bamidbar 5773 "Elite Stagnancy"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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Rabbi Yisroel Reisman[1] related that after a few years of teaching he missed the intensity of learning on his own. He decided to take a year off so that he could sit in kollel and learn full time. That summer he presented his idea to his Rebbe, Rabbi Avrohom Pam zt’l. He was surprised that Rav Pam did not concur with his idea. Rav Pam explained, “Once you begin teaching, your focus should no longer be on your personal growth. You are now a Rebbe, responsible to your disciples.”

Rav Pam noted that many great Torah leaders sacrificed much of their own Torah learning so they could teach others. The great Kaminetzer Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Boruch Ber Leibowitz zt’l, would tell his students, “Know that were it not for you, I could have studied all areas of Torah – and mastered them. It is for you that I have sacrificed this. I beg you to make sure that my sacrifice was not in vain.”

There was another Rebbe who would constantly ask Rav Pam when he would have time to master portions of Torah that he had not yet had an opportunity to learn. Rav Pam’s response was emphatic and terse, “Now, your time is for your students!” The Rebbe was persistent, “But what will I reply to the heavenly tribunal after I pass from this world and they demand to know why I didn’t complete studying the entire Torah?” Rav Pam replied, “You’re an onus (you cannot be held accountable)”. The Rebbe asked if he could quote Rav Pam on that. Rav Pam nodded and replied, “one hundred percent”.

The first Rashi in Chumash Bamidbar explains that because G-d loves His Nation He constantly counts them. Therefore, when Klal Yisroel left Egypt, after the sin of the golden calf, and currently when G-d was about to rest His Shechinah (Divine Spirit) on them, He counted them.

Shevet Levi was counted separately from the rest of the nation, demonstrating their elevated status as the tribe who would perform the service in the Mishkan. Before the Torah begins its narrative of the counting process for Shevet Levi, the Torah lists a brief genealogy of the family of Moshe and Aharon.

“These are the offspring of Aharon and Moshe on the day Hashem spoke to Moshe on Har Sinai. These are the names of the sons of Aharon, the firstborn was Nadav, and Avihu, Elazar, and Isamar… Nadav and Avihu died before Hashem when they offered an alien fire before Hashem in the Wilderness of Sinai…[2]” Rashi[3] notes that although the Torah introduces the sons of Aharon AND Moshe, “It mentions none but the sons of Aharon. They are called ‘the offspring of Moshe’ because he taught them Torah. This teaches us that whoever teaches his friend’s son Torah, the Torah views him as if he fathered him.” What is the meaning behind the analogy of one who teaches someone Torah to fathering a child?

The verse in Malachi[4] states, “For the lips of the Kohain should safeguard knowledge, and people should seek teaching from his mouth; for he is like the angel of G-d, master of Legions.” Based on this verse, Rabbah bar Channah stated[5]: “This comes to teach us that if the teacher resembles the angel of Hashem, Master of Legions, then people may seek Torah instruction from his mouth. But if not, then they may not seek Torah instruction from his mouth”.

What message is the Gemarah trying to convey? In what way must a pedagogue be like an angel?

The Hafla’ah explains that teaching requires patience, skill, and innovation. When one is well versed in a certain subject and has even reached a level of expertise, it is a challenge to teach it to an individual who is completely ignorant of the subject matter. Not only must the teacher contemplate how to teach the subject but, at the same time, he must inhibit his own growth because, while teaching what he already knows, he cannot further his own knowledge.

Rabbah bar Channah was explaining that, “selfish learning does not merit the guiding Divine light”. A human being spends his life struggling against diametric forces within him of right and wrong. An angel has no such challenge. His pristine purity cannot be compromised by the forces of this world. However, his lack of challenge also precludes an ability to grow. An angel doesn’t aspire for eternal reward; he remains exactly as he was created, unfaltering yet stagnant.

For a Rebbe/teacher to be successful he/she must be willing to compromise personal growth in order to impart knowledge to students. Just as an angel is spiritually stagnant so too a pedagogue must be prepared to put his own learning on hold and remain ‘educationally stagnant’ in order to teach others.

In the vernacular of the Hafla’ah, “Even if he must remain spiritually devoid of personal growth, still-in-all, he should teach students in order to influence them through his Torah teaching, because it is a tremendous and invaluable mitzvah to be able to assist others.” This is the message of Rabbah bar Channah: if a Rebbe is analogous to an angel in the sense that he is willing to forgo his own growth, only then should students seek to learn from him.

A Rebbe who has been teaching the same chapter of Talmud for more than two decades or a Morah who has taught the same book of Navi for many years may begin to feel somewhat jaded. Rabbah bar Channah reassures them that the merit of their self- sacrifice is well worth it.

The Gemara[6] states that in the future G-d will pacify the moon for minimizing its light at the time of Creation by labeling the great tzaddikim with the title of the moon ‘hakatan’, e.g. “Shmuel hakatan”, “Dovid hakatan”[7].

Chasam Sofer notes that it is only because the moon’s light was diminished that we can see the stars. If the moon’s light was as powerful as the sun, we would hardly know that stars exist. Similarly, our great teachers, who expend tremendous effort to teach and impart Torah and its values to their students, minimize their own growth. They are analogous to the moon for their sacrifice enables us to recognize the light of the ‘stars’, i.e. the next generation, whose light has not yet reached its zenith.

The greatest demonstration of this concept is that G-d Himself, as it were, did so when He left the holy upper worlds to give Klal Yisroel the Torah on Sinai. It was from G-d’s example that Moshe understood that, as the leader of Klal Yisroel, it was incumbent upon him to completely avail himself to the nation, even at the cost of his own deeper understanding of the intricacies and esoteric secrets of the Torah.

With this in mind, Da’as Sofer[8] offers a novel explanation of the aforementioned verse: “These are the offspring of Aharon and Moshe”, i.e. the physical offspring of Aharon and the spiritual offspring of Moshe who taught them Torah, “on the day G-d spoke to Moshe on Har Sinai”. The Torah makes it a point to tell us that it was on Har Sinai because it was specifically there that Moshe understood that it was his obligation to teach Aharon’s sons Torah. From the fact that G-d had taken the time and bother to speak to Moshe and to instruct him about the Torah, as it were, Moshe understood that he had to do so as well.

The Medrash[9] is troubled by the continuation of the verse which relates that the death of Nadav and Avihu transpired in the desert of Sinai. In fact, Nadav and Avihu did not die in the desert of Sinai. Why does the Torah say it was there? “Rather, this is to teach us that from Sinai came the root-cause (lit. the poison) of their death.” What does the Medrash mean?

Da’as Sofer explains with another Medrash[10] which states that Nadav and Avihu were killed because they never married and had children. The commentators explain that Nadav and Avihu were such great Torah scholars that they feared the responsibility of raising a family would impinge on their ability to study. They chose to remain bachelors free to devote their complete energy to Torah study. Therefore, the ‘poison’ of Nadav and Avihu, i.e. the root-cause of their liability for death, came from Sinai because they did not learn the lesson of Sinai. If G-d Himself was willing to lower Himself to teach Klal Yisroel Torah, how could Nadav and Avihu decide not to raise a family and educate them, even at the cost of self sacrifice?!

This is why one who teaches his friend’s son Torah is analogous to the father himself. Who else besides a parent is willing to sacrifice personal ambitions, aspirations, and goals for someone else? Who else beside a parent would forgo personal hopes and dreams in order to devote their energy to raising needy and at times obnoxious youths?

A teacher who is willing to forgo his/her own growth to teach and educate others is no less than a parent, whose unbridled love for their children overshadows the love they have for themselves.

“These are the offspring of Aharon and Moshe”

“For he is like the angel of G-d”

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Today (Thursday, 27 Iyar) is the yahrtzeit of my father-in-law’s mother, Mrs. Rose Mermelsetein a’h, Rochel bas Yonah. This Shabbos (29 Iyar) will iy’h be the yahrtzeit of my mother-in-law’s mother, Mrs. Chayka Kauer a’h, Chaya bas Dovid. I never merited meeting either of these two outstanding women but yet I am somewhat familiar with them through the legacies they have left behind. “Asaprah kivodcha v’lo ri’eseecha- I relate your praise though I have never seen you”. I know these women because of the impression they have left on their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and friends who live and breathe their legacies.

If mothers generally are willing to sacrifice for their children, how much greater is the sacrifice of Jewish women who, not only sacrifice themselves to ensure the physical well-being of their children but also to ensure the spiritual growth of their children. What more can we say then, about Jewish mothers who raised their children after enduring the draconian terrors of the Nazi beast and the travails of World War II.

Babby Rose was beaten over the head by a Nazi during the war; she never fully recovered. Still-in-all, she somehow managed to raise her three children as proud Torah Jews. She loved her children and took great pride in their accomplishments. Our daughter (Aviva) Rochel proudly carries her name.

Babbah Chaya was a beloved neighbor and a devout friend. The quintessential Bubby, she could fill a house with a heavenly aroma of Yom Tov and fill a heart with the beauty of our people. At the end of her life, she moved to Lakewood and, with her husband, became pillars of the community.

May the memory of these two outstanding and unique individuals be a blessing for their families and may their neshamos be elevated to even higher levels of Divine Bliss.

[1] Noted lecturer and Rav of Agudas Yisroel of Madison in Brooklyn

[2] 3:1-4

[3] quoting Gemara Sanhedrin 19b

[4] 2:7

[5] Chagiga 15b

[6] Chullin 60b

[7] i.e. the moon is called hakatan- the small one, for its light is dwarfed by the light of the sun

[8] Rabbi Akiva Sofer zt’l,

[9] Yalkut Shomoni 525

[10] Yalkut Shimoni 524

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