Thursday, June 15, 2006

Knowing How To Teach (Beha'alotecha 5766)

And God spoke to Moshe saying. Speak to Aharon and say to him: when you cause the lamps to rise, the seven lamps shall illuminate the face of the Menorah. (BeMidbar 8:1-2)

While the concept seems simple, - God gives the Mitzvah of lighting the Menorah to Aharon and his family - there is a textual oddity which requires our attention. We would have expected the text to say when you light the lamps - why then is Aharon to cause the lamps to rise? Rashi comments as follows:

The lighting is described in terms of rising, because the flame ascends - for one needs to light until the flame rises on its own. The Rabbis further explain that we can learn from here that there was a step in front of the Menorah, upon which the Kohen stood when he lit and prepared the lights. (Rashi, loc. cit.)

So Rashi understands the odd word beha'alotecha - the name of our reading - to mean either that the Kohen himself must ascend a step to light the Menorah from above, rather than stretching up to it, or that he must ensure that the flame rises on its own before removing the match from the wick. This is the usual manner of lighting a lamp – if one withdraws the taper before the new flame rises, it probably hasn’t caught and will need relighting. It is inconceivable that Rashi would write two such different explanations without him seeing them as two facets of the same idea. Let us try to link them together.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the greatest Halachic authorities of the 20th century, sees these two explanations as a guide to educational methodology. It is common to perceive the Menorah as representative of the wisdom of the Torah, which is intended to illuminate the world and permeate it with meaning. As such, the way in which we light the Menorah indicates the manner in which we inspire ourselves and others with whom we come in contact.

Rabbi Feinstein suggests that when we educate others, our goal should be to make them self-sufficient in the area of knowledge imparted. We should not aim to create dependency, but to develop mature students, independent of us - thinking on their own and, when the time is right, able to impart this information to others. This is the meaning of the first part of Rashi - when we are lighting the Menorah - i.e. inspiring others, be they students, friends, children - we must stay with them long enough so that they rise by themselves. When we walk away, they will still be burning brightly without our help. And as with a flame, there is no loss of quality - for this flame can go on and light many others.

This leads us directly to the other explanation offered by Rashi. The only way in which we will be able to achieve this noble educational goal is by having a very broad and thorough understanding of the material at hand. When we are comfortable with the material which we are imparting, only then can we succeed in imparting our inspiration in this way. We have all been taught by tutors who are not enthusiastic about their subject or just one page ahead of the students in the text book! Such poor methods never succeed in igniting the interest and enthusiasm of their charges. That is why the Kohen must stand on a step to light the Menorah from above. Before he can light, he must have the broad view which the height of the step affords him; he must light the lamps from above, peering down upon them. Translated into our situation, this means that when we are top of our material, we can impart it successfully.

Thus the two explanations of Rashi work in harmony with each others, together defining an appropriate educational methodology. This should have a significant impact on the way we act as teachers, parents and indeed, communicators of any sort. It is a remarkable lesson, for it shows us that the Torah can provide us with an entire educational methodology merely by using one word. Let us use it wisely and inspire ourselves and our children.

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