by R. Eliyahu Safran
Be what you would have your pupils be. All other teaching is unblessed mockery and apery.
When God commanded Moshe to instruct Aaron regarding the proper method of lighting the Menorah, the Torah records that, “Aaron did that, lighting the lamps to illuminate the Menorah, as God commanded Moshe.” What a strange observation this is! Could anyone have imagined that Aaron, the High Priest, would have failed to follow God’s instructions precisely?
Who among us would not do as God commands, particularly when the instructions are direct and personal? How much more would Aaron have done so? Rashi’s suggestion that the purpose of the Torah’s report is “to tell the praise of Aaron – that he did not act differently from what he was bidden (shelo shinah)” leaves us even more troubled and puzzled. Why highlight that the High Priest did not act differently from what he was bidden?
The Torah record seems to presume we would doubt Aaron’s fealty to God’s command.
As a result, we are left to wrestle with the report – are we to understand it as a compliment for Aaron, Moshe’s brother and High Priest of Israel? Should we take note that Aaron did not alter the Divine instructions?
Of course, there should be nothing of note in Aaron remaining absolutely true to the Divine instruction. And yet… and yet, for his esteemed stature, Aaron was, just like you and I, a man. A human being. And so, to see him going about his priestly responsibilities, day in and day out, for thirty-nine years with the same fervor that possessed him when he assumed the priesthood is more than a little impressive. It is inspiring.
Who among us, attending to the very same tasks day in and day out for one year, let alone thirty-nine, would not suffer the effects of “professional burnout”?
Yet, for Aaron, his priestly responsibilities never became rote; his priesthood never became merely a job; his role never became a burden. He “…did not act differently from what he was bidden.” Even as he gained experience and confidence, even as his prestige grew, even as his stature rose, even as he enjoyed what we might call “job security” he never ceased to be the same humble servant of God. He never ceased to be the man who, when initially approached to serve, expressed fear and apprehension. He never lost the sense of awe and trepidation that defined the awesome responsibility of his office.
Even as he wore the robes of the grand and lofty, of Kohen Gadol, the man within never lost his modesty, his sense of duty, his submission or self-abasement. Lo shinah.
It is in this continued sense of humility that we recognize in Aaron his true greatness. Imagine in our own workplaces – how many of our supervisors and colleagues are overtaken by their own sense of importance and ego long before serving thirty-nine long and devoted years? How many of our supervisors and colleagues hunger for honor and recognition long before their time has arrived? How many young men begrudgingly come to work, burnt out before their wick is even fully lit?
More than our High Priest, Aaron is our teacher. The prophet Malachi declares, “The Kohen’s lips shall keep knowledge and they shall seek the Torah from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord.” Based on this prophetic doctrine, the Rambam codified into law, “If the teacher is like an angel of the Lord of Hosts, they may seek Torah from his mouth. But if he is not, then they shall not seek Torah from his mouth.”
Aaron as devoted teacher is more illuminating than Aaron as High Priest. For it is in teaching, more than in many other professions, that we encounter “burn out.” Teachers just get tired of struggling to accomplish the same tasks day in and day out; teaching the same lessons from the same pages in the same books, in the same place… all with little recognition and minimal, if any, professional “promotion.”
It seems inevitable that a once enthusiastic and idealistic classroom teacher will eventually fall into a rut, unable to motivate himself, let alone his students. He will lose his energy and creativity, tied down to the same lessons, same assignments, same materials and tests. Day after day. The same. All the same.
That “sameness” becomes boredom, becomes irritability and frustration, becomes an unwillingness to reach out and communicate; becomes confrontation.
The teacher, the very person who must remain a shimmering source of inspiration and illumination, is precisely the person who most quickly suffers the devastating effects of burnout. Perhaps it is for this exact reason that the Torah reports that Aaron did just as he was told – still, even after thirty-nine years! Aaron continued to display the same devotion, excitement and drive that he had displayed as he faced his very first class!
He was not dulled by tenure or job security, by frustration or unruly students, by the same material and words. Rather, he was inspired by the source of his calling. He is the model for the teacher whose consistent and continued enthusiasm and idealism catches on like fire among students eager to imitate their hero, their teacher or rebbe, and it is this heroic accomplishment which merits great praise – Shelo shina.
The educational implications to Aaron’s response are legion. The most obvious being that the excited, idealistic and enthusiastic teacher should expect similar reactions and responses from his students. Conversely, the bored, boring, dull, unsympathetic teacher dragging himself into class only to do his job, should not expect anything other than yawning, disinterested, disgruntled and resentful students.
Such bored and burnt out teachers did not train at the “Aaron” institute, and of such teachers we are forewarned, “not to seek Torah from his mouth.”
Burnout. We have a mental image of what it looks like. But too often, our mental image misses the real burnouts, the ones who often appear to be leaders of our communities!
How do we recognize the ones who have burned out? By looking at the ones who remain passionate!
There is a powerful and seemingly unrelated theme appearing in our parasha. In the parasha, we find a group of people who are halachically patur – excused from offering the Korban Pesach at its appointed time. Why? Because they were tamei, ritually impure, as a result of being in contact with a corpse.
As we know, a tamei cannot be involved with kodshim. Yet this group of people beseech Moshe Rabeinu, demanding to know, “Why should we be deprived of offering the Pesach offering together with the rest of the Children of Israel?”
What foolishness is this? What justification is there in coming to Moshe with such a complaint? And what are we to make of Moshe’s response, teaching the law of Pesach Sheni (“second Pesach”) as a “make up” offering, one month later for people who were either tamei or too far distant from the Mikdash on the 14th of Nisan?
It seems, on its face, a strange accommodation.
Adding to the discussion, the Sifrei comments that these people were nothing but righteous individuals who literally “trembled” (chareidim) to observe the mitzvoth. They were so passionate about observing the mitzvoth that they literally could not hold back from doing so.
But they were patur! They had no obligation to observe the mitzvah. So why make such a big deal about it? Couldn’t they simply go home and chill out? There would be next year after all…
How powerful that, despite the reality of their condition, these righteous Jews literally refused to be patur. They refused to accept any rationalization that would allow them to observe just the letter of the law and not its fullness.
They “want it all”, but only if by “all” we mean the opportunity to engage in the fullness of the mitzvoth required and expected of K’lal Yisroel. Their motivation is not reward. It is not punishment. And it is not blame. They want only to be included. They are the ones the Midrash calls chareidim al hamitzvos.
Chareidim al hamitzvos. What a delightful and wonderful appellation. And one so profoundly different than the “chareidim” appellation used so randomly today. This group did not seek halachic exoneration to not do. They demanded that Moshe inquire of God how they can do!
Burn out? Not here, not among these righteous Jews. They burned with a passion to do anything and everything they could to keep the people together, under the canopy of one God. How different they are from our modern day “chareidim”, or modern day rebbeim and moros who are satisfied to make excuses and rationalizations as to how they’d “done all they could” to keep our teens in school when, in fact, they didn’t. They see their lost students on the street and shake their heads. We tried. We tried. We are patur. It is not our fault; it is their fault. The students themselves are tamei and b’derech rechoka.
The true mechanchim stand and cry out, No! We ask… no, we demand of Moshe Rabeinu, lamah nigarah? Why should these Yiddishe neshamos be deprived?
If we cannot bring them to the Korban Pesach then there must be a Pesach Sheni for them, a chance for everyone. There must be a yeshiva and Bais Yaakov that loves and cares enough to make sure that no Yiddishe kinder are “deprived.”
We all need to reach out – whether we find ourselves in Boro Park, B’nei Brak, Flatbush or Monroe – and we need to redeem these youngsters. Rationalizing their descent – and our own innocence in it – fails the test!
Find them and listen. They do not want to be patur. They do not want to be outcasts. They want to be among us, not separated from us The Sifrei teaches us that they are the real chareidim, not those who would don black coats and stern visages and turn away rather than create for them a Pesach Sheni!
Who is the burnout? Those who raise themselves up by being satisfied with a rationalization that others might fall down. They are not true teachers. They do not illuminate the way.
This very message may be inherent in the verb used by the Torah instructing Aaron not simply to kindle (l’hadlik) the Menorah, but rather be’haalotekha – literally, “when you cause the lights to rise.” Or, as Rashi explains, “that one must kindle them until the light ascends of itself.”
To teach well means to enlighten, inspire, motivate and raise students to the point at which their inner flames automatically ascend – because of the teacher’s kindling. Students must ultimately become reflections and mirrors of great teachers. Furthermore, our Rabbis derived from the expression be’haalotekha that there was a step-in front of the Menorah upon which “the priest stood while putting the lights in order.”
As Rashi suggests, the successful teacher is the teacher all will look up to. He is full of vigor and dynamism. He is high up on a step, motivating students to come up and strive to reach higher and higher, as high as they can reach. During many years of educational administration, this powerful Torah message always seemed to be read to coincide with graduation, with a message not merely to students, but with a challenge to educators – Be like Aaron. Continue to humbly and enthusiastically serve God… and your students!